‘Border Crossings’: Thirteen stories about covert journeys in service to Portuguese freedom
Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, at the underground station Dimitroffstrasse. Joachim F. Thurn, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

These thirteen stories about covert journeys in service to world socialism reveal the risks and rewards of “underground work,” a branch of Party activity that, as the author reminds us, was fundamental to the 20th-century liberation struggle. Appearing for the first time in English, the stories represent the latest stage of Eric Gordon’s ongoing and valuable translation project, which will eventually make Manuel Tiago’s full oeuvre—nine volumes of fiction (compressed to eight in translation) accessible to the English-speaking world.

Manual Tiago was the pen name of Álvaro Cunhal, a Portuguese anti-fascist revolutionary, born in 1913, who joined the Communist Party as an eighteen-year-old in 1931, traveled to Moscow for the Sixth International Youth Congress in 1935, and never looked back. Cunhal spent most of the 1940s living warily on the margins as the Portuguese CP’s de facto undercover leader. Arrested in 1949, he endured eleven years in prison before escaping to the Soviet Union in 1960.

Elected to the position of Secretary General of the Partido Comunista Português in 1961, Cunhal served in exile for thirteen years because the Party was outlawed at home. Not until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 was he able to return permanently to the country of his birth, where he held the Secretary General post for another eighteen years.

Not surprisingly, some of the stories in Border Crossings are autobiographical, covering a timespan that coincides with the author’s own clandestine journeys. As the translator’s introduction informs us, “The Hold,” a tale of stifling confinement and sensory deprivation in the dark recesses of a Yugoslavian ocean liner, is likely based on a trip Cunhal took in 1947.

The practical purpose of that trip had been to reestablish relations between Portuguese Communists and the international movement. What the story reveals and adds to the record is a realistic sense of how the political is also the personal. Hungry, cold and alone in the ship’s deep recesses, awaiting the end of his “torture of darkness and silence,” comrade Carlos is totally dependent on others. He has no choice but to keep faith.

Another claustral narrative, “The Whaleboat and the Cuddy,” confirms a pattern of situations that call to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of confinement and terror. “It was as though he had been shut up in a coffin for hour after interminable hour,” Comrade Saul reflects in Tiago’s story. The man’s suffering is painful to read, and that’s the point. But even in his most intense and despairing moments Saul is only “half-dead,” awaiting spiritual resurrection and recommitment. As in Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, the fugitive journey offers insights into the aboveground world.

Border Crossings is frank about the pressures and risks of revolutionary activity, but it’s also a book of lively quirks and unexpected twists. In one story, Abel and Francisco are lost and nearly starving on an arduous trek through the Pyrenees. Suddenly and inexplicably, they come across cows in a pasture and, more surprising, “buckets full of milk, brimming with foamy white bubbles.” With no one around, they fall to their knees before the buckets and drink their fill. “How wonderful!” Abel says, forgetting that “since he was a boy, he never liked the taste of milk.”

That evening, after making it to the next stage of their crossing and a safe house, the men undress to take baths. They feel tiny bites and notice “healthy colonies of ticks…round like little white berries” on their backs and abdomens. They remember that on the previous night they’d slept on the ground, keeping themselves warm under mounds of dry leaves. “It’s incredible we didn’t notice anything,” says Abel. Francisco replies, “I did feel something, but I thought it was the leaves.” Humorous subtleties can be difficult to translate across culture and language, but Gordon gets it right.

There are also stylistic gems, passages that intrigue and resonate. Not every translator will deftly handle the nuances and rhythms of inspired landscape description. This one is seen through the eyes of Abel and Francisco in “The Pass Through the Pyrenees”:

Far below, extending to the north as far as one could see, lay a patchwork of light and colors, fields, groves of trees and farmhouses attesting to the intensity of human life. To the west, also as far as the eye could take you, out to the long horizon line with the sky, sat the immense, shimmering stripe of the ocean.

In “Spain Lies to the East,” Alfredo volunteers to accompany Barra, a fugitive from the Portuguese fascist regime, on a hazardous passage toward safe harbor within Republican Spain. Alfredo is an ardent but inexperienced comrade, and Barra must instruct him even in the essential skill of finding the North Star. Only upon his return to Portugal does Alfredo realize how close he had been to apprehension or worse. “Deep in thought,” he weighs his risk-taking and questions his wisdom, yet remains undeterred:

Ruminating along those lines as he walked home, letting his imagination run on, he pictured himself at night in the fields looking at the starry sky and orienting himself as Barra had taught him.

In this volume we learn not only about celestial navigation but about the methods by which comrades recognize each other in public places, and how some of them escape from fascist prisons. Always, we are warned, memorize every detail of the information on your fake passport, including the real geographic location of one’s false hometown.

This is, after all the lesson learned by young Vito in “By Train Through Nazi Germany.” Vito is a keen observer of detail who has “a knack for wriggling out of any situation.” But crossing Nazi Germany with the Gestapo surveilling and “primed to intervene” is serious business. Vito makes several mistakes—including the potentially dooming one of stating that his alleged birthplace of Nantes is on the Mediterranean coast—before he comprehends “how real the dangers of his trip were” and recognizes it as a near-death experience.

Gordon’s translation of “Women Over the Soajo” has been broadcast on Pacifica radio and made available for listening. The plot involves Berta and Manuela, two Portuguese Communists stuck at a fine hotel while they await instructions for their return home. Outwardly they exhibit bourgeois behavior, browsing the stores and enjoying meals and amenities as if they were “two single ladies living off their rental income.” When they encounter a male comrade in a dour mood, they invite him out and share their contagious exuberance, receiving the man’s compliments and a gift in return.

Seemingly strangers to misery, the women are unprepared for the arduous next leg of the journey, an ascent of the rocky and steep Soajo mountain. But despite the sexist insults of their male guide, they show their mettle. Even limping to their destination on bleeding feet, they retain as well their high-spirited revolutionary élan.

Tiago’s decision to structure a story collection around the perils, vicissitudes, wonders and gratifications of boundary transgression is original and ingenious, a credit to the author’s individual artistic vision. But as translator Eric Gordon points out in his introduction to Border Crossings, “One theme that pops up in story after story here is that of communication, cooperation and collaboration. No one makes these journeys alone.” Clearly both Tiago and Gordon his collaborator are stirred by the culture of border-crossing, the simple solidarity of the movement’s brothers and sisters, underground and therefore largely unsung.

As rendered in Gordon’s translation, Tiago’s prose at times recalls Hemingway’s minimalist, modernist prose style. It’s therefore fitting that in the book’s final story, less is more. “It Was Nothing—A Vacation” is an ultrashort, flash-fiction piece with a clipped and ironic outcome. The magnitude of its irony is a cumulative product of the preceding twelve stories.

Fernando and Regina, two militants who are also the parents of a four-year-old, accept an assignment of several years in a distant country. Getting there will be an ordeal, so they ask another couple—comrades—to separately drive their daughter to Paris by car, pretending that the girl is their own. The parents endure “quite a bit of trouble” in their crossing but say nothing about it to the child and are joyously relieved at their reunion. Someone asks the little girl, whose trip had been a happy and carefree time, “what a clandestine border crossing is like.” Her response, “It’s nothing—a vacation,” is overheard, believed, and repeated by many.

Border Crossings is a work of unique concept and clever prose, richly translated. It’s both engaging and eye-opening for its depiction of an important but little-known field of political activity.

Manuel Tiago
Border Crossings
Translated by Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2021.
130 pages, $19.99 (paperback)
ISBN: 9780717808731
Order from International Publishers.

Photo: Friedrichstrasse Station, Berlin, 1932 (FOTO: Fortepan ID 28605, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)


Patrick Chura
Patrick Chura

Dr. Patrick Chura teaches courses in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature and culture studies at the University of Akron. He is the author of three books and has published articles on a variety of literary-historical topics. His book, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, won the 2022 Literary Encyclopedia Book Prize and the Paul Cowan Award for Non-Fiction.