Introduction

My first acquaintance with Portuguese fiction was, unsurprisingly, with The Book of Disquiet. A book that I read as I would a collection of short stories, picking the book up at whim, reading a fragment here, another there. There is very little short fiction from Portugal available in translation and you will notice that my selections draw from just two publishers. What does exist in translation, however, is certainly enough to whet the appetite and to highlight Portugal’s remarkable contribution to the art of the short story.

‘Sesame’ by Miguel Torga, translated by Ivana Rangel-Carlsen

Torga’s miniatures, published as Tales from the Mountain in 1941 and New Tales from the Mountain in 1944, rarely stretch to more than a couple of pages and yet contain a plenitude of wisdom. Collectively, they form a richly textured mosaic of rural life. Taken singly, each is its own uniquely perfect narrative. In ‘Sesame’, a young boy, his imagination fired by the tales he hears read aloud by the village storyteller, attempts to unearth the gold he believes to be buried under Gallows Mountain. What follows is a meditation on fiction and the imagination. Wonder is swiftly followed by disenchantment and yet, in the tale’s final lines, awe and mystery return in the most mundane and beautiful of ways.

First published in Contos da Montanha, 1941. Translation in Tales & More Tales from the Mountain by Miguel Torga, Carcanet, 1996

‘So Many People, Mariana’ by Maria Judite de Carvalho, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

In my view, a contender for the title of finest short story in existence. Mariana is a figure at odds with her environment and. more specifically, the deeply patriarchal world of Salazar’s Portugal. A Job-like figure, beset by misfortune, she is rebel, victim and accomplice, at times rebellious and, at others, complicit in her own sufferings. Carvalho’s assertion that loneliness can be a source of strength as well as of tragedy still feels revolutionary so many decades after its initial and controversial publication.

First published as ‘Tanta Gente Mariana’ in 1988. Translation in the anthology Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers, Dedalus, 2018. Also available in a translation by John Byrne in Professor Pfiglzz and His Strange Companion and Other Stories, Carcanet, 1997

‘The Man of Dreams’, by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

In a cheap restaurant in Paris, our narrator meets a man who claims to be able to control his dreams, a man who “dreamed life and lived dreams”, a man who, like the author, rails against convention, cliche and the simplistic binaries (love/hate, male/female) with which we stifle freedom. He is a figure who stands proudly for movement, fluidity and imagination.

In The Great Shadow, Dedalus, 1996

‘Two Hands’ by Hélia Correia, translated by Annie McDermott

Nature, in Correia’s imagination, is a cantankerous old woman, dealing natural death with one hand and accidental death with the other. Overworked and exhausted, a temporary lapse in attention results in a misallocated death, leaving a woman, Barbara, without a death of her own. This is a strange story that, like most of Correia’s work, combines brutality and violence with an exquisitely dark and dry sense of humour.

In the anthology Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers, Dedalus, 2018

‘The Silence’ by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Jennifer Alexander, Elenice Barbosa de Araujo, Sally Bolton, Clara Buxton, Tom Gatehouse, Felix Macpherson and Maria Reimondez

A woman in a house, in apparent synergy with her surroundings. Yet there is tension in the air; a sensation that the property is observing her. The stillness is eventually broken by the scream of an unknown woman. Is her scream a cry of pain or of warning? Is it, perhaps, a plea for help? No easy answers are offered and yet, in the air of watchfulness that pervades the narrative, it’s not difficult to sense the all-seeing eye of authoritarianism, of the fear that keeps us at home and prevents us from coming to the defence of others.

In the anthology Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers, Dedalus, 2018

‘The Mandarin’ by Eça de Queiroz, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

An exuberant and cutting work of fantasy from one of the greats of Portuguese fiction, ‘The Mandarin’ is a no holds barred account of human weakness, in which nobody escapes censure and everybody is flawed. With the mere tinkling of a bell, Teodoro magically brings about the death of a wealthy mandarin, gaining his riches in the process. Predictably, wealth isn’t all its cracked up to be. What prevents this story from becoming tediously moralistic is that there is not a character within its pages left untouched by money and greed. All are found wanting – including the reader.

First published in 1880. Translation in The Mandarin and Other Stories, Dedalus, 2018