10 Best Books About Portugal Update 05/2022

In the beginning, when I moved to Portugal a few years ago, my first thought was to fill my bookshelves with non-fiction. It led me to the history, culture, and politics of the country, I thought. And, so it was. Roger Crowley’s Conquerors and Barry Hatton’s The Portuguese helped me learn about the country’s most important events and mistakes, as well as its key dates and territories. Yet, until I read my first Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago, I didn’t get a sense of the whims, wants, and inner worlds of the Portuguese people, until I read them (people). In my choices, I go back and forth between old and new, native-born people and people who aren’t. It’s not even close to complete, but I hope it can help you find “pleasure in the pathless woods” of Portuguese (and Portugal-related) fiction.

Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago

He was given the Nobel Prize in 1998 because of his ability to help us “once again grasp an ethereal reality.” José Saramago is undoubtedly Portugal’s best-known writer. His 1984 book, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, set in prewar fascist Lisbon, is widely thought to be his best work. Baltasar and Blimunda, by the way, is his 1982 historical romp. It’s a lighter and happier read, though, so I’d choose that one. The story is about a priest who is trying to get away from the Inquisition with the help of a one-handed former soldier (Baltasar) and his X-ray-eyed lover. It’s set in the modern-day tourist hotspot of the Convent of Mafra (Blimunda).

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler, a naturalized American, is one of the few non-Portuguese novelists who knows Portugal very well and writes about it very well. Hunting Midnight is a follow-up to his best-selling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. It deals with themes of Jewishness and prejudice. In the second half of the book, the story moves to the United States in search of Midnight, the protagonist of the title. The first descriptions of Porto’s riverside Ribeira neighborhood at the turn of the 19th century are very well written. So beautiful, in fact, that the city has since given him its most prestigious Medal of Honor.

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blues doesn’t get a lot of praise from critics, who give it a 2.7/5 rating on Goodreads. The second book is a very difficult feat to pull off. The book, Brick Lane, isn’t going to be as exciting as this one. But as a picture of rural Portugal, it’s worth reading. A series of short stories set in and around the village of Mamarrosa takes readers into the lives and minds of a group of people who aren’t real: a disgruntled cafe owner, a want tobe au pair, a squalid English family, and a gay pig farmer. Ali is always a pleasure to read. You don’t have to be afraid of this book because it’s only skin-deep and pretty. It’s not going to scare you away.

Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Maria Judite de Carvalho, Hélia Correia, Teolinda Gersão and Lídia Jorge

Few of Portugal’s female novelists can be found in English translation, which is both bad for art and bad for the country as a whole. These short stories are some of the best in the world. This is a big and important step in setting the record straight. Style and subject matter vary, but the stories all have a great sense of fun and newness. Agustina Bessa-Luis, who wrote the 1954 classic A Sibila and died last year at the age of 96, is one of the six writers chosen. Her death sparked a day of official mourning in the city of Porto, where she lived. They should also check out New Portuguese Letters. It was banned by the Salazar regime because of its erotic and irreverent content. Maria Velho da Costa, one of the three authors of the book, died last month. It was a big deal around the world in its time.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is a philosophically intense mystery set in the Portuguese capital during the dictatorship of the Estado Novo from the early 1930s until 1974, mostly under the rule of António Salazar. It was written in German. What does Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) do? He reads some notebooks written by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor. He becomes interested in them. Amadeu has to treat the head of Salazar’s secret police. He saves the man’s life, and now his life has been turned upside down. Gregorius’s quest to piece together the threads of Amadeu’s life gives Mercier a chance to show how Portugal looked before and after it became a democracy.

Pereira Maintains by António Tabucchi

Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian writer, does a great job of capturing the moral dilemmas and psychological stress of living under a fascist regime in a book about Portugal’s years of dictatorship. The Pereira in the title is a book-loving journalist at the Lisboa newspaper. Even though he tries to keep his head down, he gets caught in a web of dangerous subversion. In 1994, some critics say it’s as much a critique of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi as it is a history of Portugal under Salazar. That might be true, but Pereira Maintains shows that fascism is dreary and dangerous no matter where it grows.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

A widowed Canadian diplomat moves to Portugal with a chimpanzee, and another character always walks backwards. This book is a follow-up to The Life of Pi, which was written by French author Jules Martel. The ocean from his first book, which won the Booker Prize, is replaced by the land of Portugal over a century. The book is made up of three stories that aren’t very closely linked, but each one has the protagonist go on a wild goose-hunt into the country’s northern hills. These quests all lead to the village of Tuizelo, which, unlike the majority of this fantasy fable, is real. It is in Montesinho natural park, with a “plain and simple” church that looks a lot like Martel’s description.

The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso

In 1415, Portugal took Ceuta. In 1999, Macau was given to Portugal. It was one of the most long-lasting empires in history. Perhaps that’s why the country doesn’t seem to have a lot of post-colonial angst now. Dulce Maria Cardoso’s new book, The Return, shows another side of the imperial story that isn’t as well-known. After the independence wars in Lusophone Africa of the 1960s and early 1970s, Portuguese evacuees came back to the “motherland” in droves. This was an unplanned reverse migration that required both the returnees and the people they were given a new home to adapt to. When Cardoso wrote this book, she used poetic and foretelling language to describe the plight of Portugal’s retornados. She used her own experience (she grew up in Angola) to do this.

Tales from the Mountain by Miguel Torga

Miguel Torga’s short stories about life in the barren hills of Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes region (literally “Over the Mountains”) were published in 1941 and quickly became a favorite. Life has changed a lot since Torga was a child. The dirt-poor villages where he grew up now have electricity, the internet, running water, and paved roads. Portuguese friends say that the soul of this country’s countryside is still very much the same. When Torga was writing Tales from the Mountain, he used the simple, thrifty writing style that made him famous. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature for his work.

The Maias by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz

A lot of people think Eça de Queiroz is one of Portugal’s most important or best writers. He is still important in the Portuguese canon. One of his best-known works, The Illustrious House of Ramires, is a satirical look at Portugal’s lavishness that is both hilarious and savage at the same time. He died in 1900. If you want a more positive view of Portugal, read his posthumous romance, The City and the Mountains. It’s set in Paris, which is rich and empty, and the Douro valley in Portugal, which is beautiful and peaceful (impoverished, yet enchanting). That said, if you can only fit one Eça de Queiroz book into your lockdown bag, then The Maias is the one to choose. The book is a staple of the school syllabus, and Margaret Jull Costa did a great job translating it. It tells the story of the incestuous bourgeoisie in Portugal through the decline and fall of a high-flying, ill-fated Lisbon family.

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