[Two Lines Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

The lápis azul [blue pencil]—the fearsome, symbolic instrument of the censor—could be wildly unpredictable, occasionally altogether gratuitous. At one point, Portugal’s Estado Novo [New State] banned newspapers and magazines from publishing horoscopes with bad forecasts for Taurus, the star sign of the regime’s leader António de Oliveira Salazar. It was one of a few silly examples of the despotism that characterized Salazar’s forty-eight-year dictatorship—a regime ultimately defined by social, cultural, and political repression, as well as corruption and colonial wars. 

“Falsehoods, fabrications and fears, however unjustified, eventually create attitudes of mind which become political realities,” Salazar declared in 1948. Alongside the imposition of a corporatist state that left most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elite families, the “quiet autocrat” sought to control Portuguese “attitudes of the mind” through propaganda and censorship during his rule. Blue pencils in hand, the censors would ensure that writing, the arts, and the general flow of information into Portugal upheld the Estado Novo’s values of “God, Fatherland, and Family.” They sought to eliminate any work that might have demonstrated “contempt for law and order . . . demoralization of the family . . . disrespect for institutions . . . pornography.”

Practiced in Portugal for centuries, censorship had been ingrained in literary culture by the time Maria Judite de Carvalho, one of the country’s most important twentieth-century authors, began writing. In a new, masterful translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Anglophone readers can now experience the biting voice of Carvalho’s short fiction in So Many People, Mariana. The twenty-six stories that comprise the collection were written in the latter years of the regime from 1959 to 1967. Originally published as three distinct volumes throughout this period, the first—Tanta Gente, Mariana [So Many People, Mariana]—received great critical acclaim upon its release in 1959.

Taken in the context of this uncertain, oppressive time—in which there was potential retribution for any criticism of the regime—Carvalho’s body of work is an interesting study, posing questions as to how she ultimately avoided the lápis azul. So Many People, Mariana is a tour de force of domestic horrors, placidly delivered with sharp observation. Drama is infused throughout the collection: romantic affairs, long-lost love, domestic violence, nosy neighbors, murder, illness, suicide, depression. Carvalho’s characters, mostly women, are asphyxiated by their circumstances and granted no reprieve. While she never leaves her readers with loose ends, the revelations devastate. There are surprises and twists that demonstrate a command of form, irony, and humor, but no happy or satisfying endings. What emerges from these narratives is work that feels inherently political, a kaleidoscopic look at a society languishing under repression.

Anchoring the stories are universal themes of isolation and desolation. In the title novella, the protagonist Mariana learns she has a terminal illness. Waiting for death, she proceeds to tell her life story. Crippled with a bout of loneliness in the middle of the night at the age of fifteen, her father attempts to console her with a sobering truth:

We’re all of us alone, Mariana. Alone, but with lots of people around us. So many people, Mariana! And not one of them can help us. They can’t and wouldn’t want to if they could.

That truth persists throughout the narrative. She marries but is callously left by her husband, and the specter of the woman he leaves for—a sculptor named Estrella—haunts her. She’s hit by a car and suffers a miscarriage. She moves on to a lover who abandons her to join the church. She works several unsatisfying dead-end jobs. All the while, the women of the neighborhood gossip about her misfortune.

Observant yet passive in her interactions with others, Mariana is full of self-hate, catalyzed by circumstances beyond her control. “I feel so sluggish,” she laments. “And somehow sick of myself too, as if I am a much-chewed piece of bread that ends up tasting sour, tasting of me, of my own juices.”

Through Mariana’s memories, which paint a picture of a life devoid of options, Carvalho delivers a clear critique of the ways in which society had cruelly and systematically disregarded women. The regime’s constitution had practically codified patriarchy, declaring all citizens equal except for the woman, the differences resulting from her nature and the good of the family.” Women were limited in every regard, relegated to the duties of motherhood and the domestic sphere. Many needed permission from their husbands to work outside the home, and if they were allowed to, they were unable to access certain professions.

Social critiques persist throughout the collection, with sketches of the myriad ways in which a patriarchal, capitalistic culture could trap and punish women. Female characters are boxed into societal roles that they’re often forced to perpetuate—never truly seen, never rewarded, easily discarded. Marrying well and living an easy life barely matters if you’re forty and don’t have children, as is made clear to the protagonist in “The Mother.” Outliers, like the titular character in “Miss Arminda,” unmarried yet desperate to have a family, might resort to extreme measures to fit expectations. In the minds of Carvalho’s male protagonists, women exist on pedestals as unattainable romantic ideals (“His Love for Etel”) or as damsels-in-distress in need of saving (“Rosa at the Seaside Guesthouse”). Through unsparing, yet coolly detached narration, Carvalho offers an opportunity to dive into hopes, fears, dreams, anxieties. Along the way, she nudges her readers to think twice about a woman’s humanity.

On the occasions where Carvalho’s characters have options, asphyxiation can be self-imposed. “Life and Dream” introduces us to Aderito, a man who dreams of travel and exploration while toiling at his middle management position at a major bank:

He could have been a traveling salesman, a train conductor, or a sailor. However, he was none of those things because we do not make ourselves . . .

When offered a lifeline—a promotion to the “prestigious post” of branch manager, a chance to relocate with his wife, and more money—he inexplicably turns it down, seeing no point in living out his dreams. Aderito watches a colleague take the opportunity and board a steamship to a new life. He then goes on to do what he does each morning. Sitting near the airport, he watches planes take off on the runway.

A certain kind of nihilism fuels Aderito’s decision to refuse the job, but it’s also worth pointing out where exactly the opportunity would take him: Lourenço Marques (Maputo) in Mozambique, at the time still under occupation by the Portuguese after centuries of brutal exploitation. While Portugal had long outlawed the slave trade by the twentieth century, the Estado Novo had retained—and sought to expand—economic control of the former colonies of the Portuguese empire. They rebranded the territory to “overseas province” in the 1950s, despite rising nationalist sentiment and palpable tensions. By 1964, the Mozambique Liberation Front would begin a violent ten-year war of independence. It is likely that Carvalho’s readers understood implicitly that Aderito’s dream job would never actually be a dream job. Through this subtext, “Life and Dream” becomes not only a tale of flattened ambitions, but also the tale of a nation still reckoning with the sins of colonialism. “We are shaped by circumstances,” says Carvalho in her narration. Often the things we’re offered simply show us what we lack.

There are several possibilities as to how this writing, laden with critique and political subtext, managed to slip past censorship. As Carvalho published most of her short fiction within the last decade of the regime (which would effectively end with the Carnation Revolution in 1974), she might have been able to benefit from the unpredictability of the censors’ gaze. But there could be an even simpler reason—what the writer’s granddaughter, Inês Fraga, refers to as “an interesting paradox.” Carvalho was a woman, a second-class citizen under the law, who mostly wrote about women’s experiences. Through a wholesale dismissal of women’s writing, Carvalho could exist in “an area protected from the censors’ gaze . . . a space of total freedom.” One can imagine that even if these stories caught the attention of the censors, they might have found them trite, likened to frivolity or salacious neighborhood gossip. After all, what kind of threat could women’s experiences and domestic dramas pose to anyone?

Finally, we can’t discount how Carvalho’s mastery of her craft might have helped her evade the lápis azul. The stories exercise a kind of restraint that keeps the work from feeling too overtly polemical or critical; we’re mostly left to read between the lines. It’s that very restraint that makes So Many People, Mariana prescient, a treat for new readers. In some respects, little has changed since the mid-twentieth century. We still grapple with many of the themes explored in the collection: feelings of loneliness and isolation, the pressures of unattainable cultural expectations, the punishments of a capitalistic society. To look back at Carvalho’s voice and authorial vision—to find commonalities with the experiences of her protagonists—is an opportunity for modern audiences to unearth fresh perspectives.

Margarita Diaz is from San Francisco, CA and is currently based in Washington, DC. She works in progressive politics. Her writing appears in different corners of the internet.

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