Travels In My Homeland by Almeida Garrett. Translated from the Portuguese and with an Introduction by John Parker (Peter Owen/Unesco, £12.95).
THIS is a very strange, indeed a. unique work, much loved by cultured Portuguese readers for whom Almeida Garrett, whose life spanned the first half of the last century, is a fascinating figure. Not only for his activities in the Liberal wars of the 20s and 30s which more than once forced him to take refuge in England and France, but also as the leading figure of the Romantic Movement in Portuguese letters.
The fact that Almeida Garrett introduced a bill in the Portuguese Parliament in the 1830s relating to literary and artistic copyright should make him a particularly sympathetic figure to writers who in Britain owe so much to the Society of Authors which was only founded at the end of the 19th century.
The story revolves around Joaninha, the epitome of a romantic heroine, her cousin Carlos, their frail and blind grandmother and Friar Dinis, the sinister black-habited Franciscan who wanders in and out like an uneasy, somewhat malignant spirit, who all come vividly alive through the often tortuous way in which Almeida Garrett writes.
Even the Englishwoman Georgina who is loved by Carlos, the debonair officer in the Liberal cause who cannot prevent the final tragedy of Joaninha's madness and death, the grandmother's physical dissolution or his own yielding to a life of convention, is present in spirit to the reader. All is set against a background of the riverine lands, laid waste in the Miguelite War which was followed by the first suppression of the monasteries in 1834.
The book, divided into many very short chapters, darts from place to place, from character to character, for no apparent reason, yet the reader is carried on, almost against his will, to know more about these elusive figures which yet have a power of life, a power essential to the survival of any work of fiction.
What is interesting about this novel is that it uses techniques which are now again coming into fashion — such as addressing the reader directly, ,involving him in the turn of events and even discussing the plot with him.
It is clear that the author had read widely in both French and English, including Sterne's Sentimental Journey, though this Portuguese novel, if novel it can be called, has none of Sterne's grossness which belongs to an earlier age.
The introduction is an admirable piece of work and helps the foreign reader to understand what strange concatination of circumstances led the writer to use such a zany method of writing this picaresque Gothic tragedy.
Mr Parker is an excellent translator and the book reads well and smoothly, but he is not always right over Portuguese nomenclature. The author is always known as Almeida Garrett and not by his last name alone. The almost universal use of two names in this country is probably due to the fact that unlike Britain, Portugal has comparatively few surnames, though it is prolific in Christian names, the humblest road mender often being under the protection of an early Pope or martyr such as Policarp or Anacletus.
Readers who care about unusual writing or who know Portugal well, particularly that part of the Ribatejo which adjoins the river Tagus up to Santarem, will find much of Travels In My Homeland touching and evocative. Though I think it strange that it should have been chosen for inclusion in the European Series of the Unesco Collection of Representative Works, recommended by the Gulbenkian Foundation, for there are other Portuguese literary works of wider interest to English-speaking readers.
Susan Lowndes Marques
The reviewer is the Catholic Herald's correspondent in Lisbon.