by MARIE NOEL KELLY
The Portugal Story by John dos Passos (Robert Hale 70s.).
THE rise of a nation, the
conquest and the death of its empire, such is the canvas of John dos Passos latest book, a canvas of immense importance to European
At the tip of the continent and facing the Atlantic geographically and spiritually, much more than leaning toward Spain. Portugal had sent out tentacles all over Europe during the three centuries of the Age of Discoveries. and was listened to in England. Spain. the Holy Roman Empire, North Africa, Italy, by Emperors. Kings and Popes.
A small kingdom Portugal manoeusered, survived and became a conquering Empire which she kept for three centuries through the courage, knowledge of her sailors and cartographers, headed by Henry the Navigator—grandson of John of Gaunt. The conversion of the "discovered" to Christianity was often carried out en masse, especially in the early fourteen hundreds —albeit in a true missionary spirit.
Later this motive was obscured with the glut of treasures and the magnitude of the conquest, which went to the head of the conquistadors. This greed, and the influx of slaves in Portugal itself, finally broke up the far flung Empire: too much had been done; treasures were too great; the spices too meaty. The rapier, like the spirit of the conquerors themselves, was blunted in time by the flow of gold.
Dos Passos nevertheless shows how it was all done with the unerring pen of the true historian.
All through the 3 centurien Europe benefited from the knowledge acquired, and the Dutch and British later picked up the very bones of the Empire for themselves. Such masters as Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Game, Albuquerque, Magallace and Columbus were the beacons for smaller fry.
Interesting episodes such as the search for Prester John in Abbysinia, the establishment of the Portuguese and the Jesuits in Brazil are minutely described.
With regard to sketching style, the brush is steady, the historical lines delineated with expert craft, and the master himself well versed in the magic of words carefully chosen. The great saga moves, rises and finally dies superbly. The peripherial aspect of the story is also suffused with colour: the rainbow of India, the lustre of the South Sea Islands, the grim blackness of the tempests wrecking the caravels with their dispased crews, the flags dressing the ships to greet the savages.
Dos Passos has hindsight vision telling in subdued or magnificent descriptions of the wraths, loves, jealousies of this vanished world of men opposing their human frailties and incorporating them in the great design so that the human element is of constant interest to the reader.
The author does refer much to the dull and longwinded original sources which he had to consult and which he did at first hand. This is quite deliberate and the bibliography is more sketched than numbered, book by book.
There could have been better maps.