Posts Tagged ‘the return’

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.

The Return

July 21, 2014

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It wouldn’t be Spanish Lit Month without at least one Roberto Bolano, and luckily, despite his death in 2003, English translations are still appearing faster than I can read them. I always feel a little intimidated discussing Bolano as there is a sense that the sum of his works is greater than its parts. By that I mean, that even with a partial knowledge of his writing, it is clear that certain ideas, themes and characters reoccur as if they were part of some larger plan. For that reason I thought it would be best to read a volume of his short stories, The Return, translated, as always, by Chris Andrews. Confusingly this volume contains stories from both a 1997 and a 2001 collection – the same collections that were plundered for Last Evenings on Earth (presumably these are the ‘leftover’ stories).

Despite this precaution, there are still stories which clearly form part of the ‘bigger picture.’ ‘Photos’, for example, features Bolano’s fictional alter-ego Arturo Belano and (of course) an anthology of poetry. The more accomplished ‘Detectives’, written entirely in dialogue, relates the tale of Arturo’s time in prison from the point of view of two of his guards, former classmates.

“So I looked in the mirror again and saw two old classmates, a twenty-year-old cop with a loose tie, and a dirty looking guy with long hair and a beard, all skin and bone, and I thought: Jesus, we really have fucked up, haven’t we…”

Many of the stories are about a different kind of dysfunctional relationship: those between men and women. All are set on the edges of society. In ‘Cell Mates’ the narrator begins a relationship with the revolutionary Sofia – they discover that they were both in prison at the same time, though in different continents. The relationship fades with Sofia:

“By then Sofia had become a ghost; she appeared without a sound, shut herself in her room or the bathroom and disappeared again after a few hours.”

The narrator, however, does not give up on her, even when subsequent meetings suggest she is both unwell and in an abusive relationship. There is something similar in the story ‘Joanna Silvestri’, one of a number told by a female narrator, the titular porn star. While shooting in LA she looks up an old friend who is dying from AIDs and moves in with him while she is there:

“It was almost like saying, It’s OK if you never come back, I knew that, but I decided that Jack needed me and that I needed him too.”

The recollection is told to a detective, emphasising its existence on the margins, and ghosts also feature (“I know a lot about ghosts”). Perhaps my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Return’, is actually narrated by a ghost:

“I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villleneuve is a necrophiliac.”

Death is commonplace in many of the stories. In ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’ the narrator begins, “I’ve had people killed.” ‘Murdering Whores’ is, as its title suggests, about a female killer. In ‘William Burns’ a man kills someone he believes to be a threat on what seem in retrospect unconvincing reasons. Bolano’s world is one of unglamorous criminals, unexceptional non-comformists, the weary and the stateless. Here he effortlessly inhabits their attitudes and voices, neither sympathetic nor uncaring. He also shows a technical variety that suggests someone as comfortable with short story as with the novel. It seems there is not escape from the feeling that Bolano is a writer where you must read everything – because everything is worth reading.