Archive for the ‘Dulce Maria Cardoso’ Category

The Return

July 20, 2018

Dulce Maria Cardoso’s The Return (translated by Angel Gurria-Quintana) is a coming-of-age novel set against the background of the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola in 1975, a setting Cardoso knows well having left Portugal with her family for Angola as an infant only to return at the age of eleven. (It is thought that over a million Portuguese returned from African colonies during this time). In the novel the experience of returning is voiced through the character of Rui, a fifteen-year-old boy, who, as well as coping with arriving destitute in a country where he has never lived, must grapple with his approaching adulthood.

The stubbornness of Rui’s father means that they are among the last to leave:

“Everyone has gone away. My friends, the neighbours, the teachers, the shop owners, the mechanic, the barber, everyone. We should no longer be here either.”

Only Rui’s mother has any attachment to the Motherland, partly because she blames her nervous illness on living in Angola:

“It’s because of this country that mother is the way she is. For Mother there were always two countries, this one, the country that made her ill, and the Motherland, where everything is different, and where she was also different. Father never talks about the Motherland. A man belongs to the place that feeds him unless he has an ungrateful heart, that is what Father replied when he was asked if he missed the Motherland.”

His mother teaches him and his sister, Maria, “about relatives in the Motherland as if it were homework.” When cherries arrive from Portugal she eats them “with such pleasure” even though they are “old and shrivelled”. Rui imagines that in the Motherland he will find “beautiful girls. Girls with cherries for earrings…”

As they are waiting to leave, a jeep full of soldiers arrives at the door. In a scene as tense as you will find in any novel, the father attempts to appease them by sending Rui for beer and cigarettes while the mother and daughter lock themselves in a bedroom. Eventually the soldiers take his father away and Rui and his mother and sister must leave for Portugal without him.

In Portugal they are given a room in a hotel which has been set aside to house returnees. There they wait for Rui’s father to arrive, but in a general atmosphere of waiting: their future of all the returnees uncertain, with little chance of employment and money running out. They are looked down upon by the local Portuguese; Rui complains of a teacher who refuses to learn their names and soon stops going to school. He decides he must believe his father is dead:

“I can’t live hoping that Father will arrive.”

Rui’s father looms large in his life, and he sees the manhood he is approaching through his father’s eyes: “men should not blush”; “a man doesn’t cry”; “a man only vomits when he’s drunk or if he’s eaten something bad.” His dreams also echo his father’s:

“With the sea in front of you the rest of the word is closer, Brazil and America seem to be right there, with the sea in front of you the future can be like Father’s on the Patria twenty-four years ago, it can be whatever you want it to be.”

Rui’s also adopts his father’s attitude towards the Angolans, the innate racism of the colonist:

“No-one ever bothered trying to explain who these people were, it was always just the blacks, blacks are lazy, they like to lie in the sun like lizards, blacks are arrogant, if they walk with their heads down it’s only so they don’t have to look us in the eye, blacks are stupid, they don’t understand what we say to them…”

Naturally, Rui is also very interested in sex. When he pictures his future in Angola, despite doubts creeping in after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, his grand vision (“the band was never going to stop marching past playing songs of love”) also includes:

“Paula would agree to go out with me and let me unfasten her bra”

Cardoso captures his adolescent fascination with the opposite sex perfectly, from observing scenes from Emmanuelle using binoculars in Angola to an affair with a married chambermaid in the hotel. She pitches his voice perfectly between the innocence and the limited experience of his age, often in an urgent rush of thoughts. She is particularly adept and ensuring the language and references do not exceed the character’s reach, instead using pace and rhythm for stylistic effect.

The Return manages both to be a vivid document of a particular moment in Portuguese history (no doubt echoed across all colonial nations) and a sympathetic portrayal of adolescence. It’s to be hoped that more of Cardoso’s work will appear in English.