Manuel Tiago’s ‘The Slackers’: A conversation with the translator
Alvaro Cunhal in military service during his youth, and as Communist Party leader later in life. | via PCP

International Publishers has just released The Slackers and Other Stories, the fifth volume of fiction by Manuel Tiago, the pen name for Álvaro Cunhal, the longtime leader of the Portuguese Communist Party. People’s World sat down with our staff writer Eric A. Gordon, who created the translation from Portuguese into English.

C.J. Atkins: First of all, Eric, congratulations on this latest book. Number five! How do you find the time for this?

Eric Gordon: Thank, you, C.J. Well, I make the time. My life over the last three years has been People’s World and Tiago in about equal proportion. But you know, I think someone might have asked that same question of Álvaro Cunhal himself. The first couple of books, the novella Five Days, Five Nights and the forthcoming magnum opus Until Tomorrow, Comrades, he actually wrote in prison, so I guess he had plenty of time then! Though how he was permitted paper and pens (could he possibly have had a typewriter?) I don’t know. I’ll have to ask that of the Portuguese comrades sometime. The rest he wrote when he returned to Portugal after years of exile, and busy a guy as he was, he still took the time to write these stories and novels.

Atkins: Why do you think he was so driven to make his mark in fiction?

Gordon: Cunhal was an amazingly talented person, a very fine graphic artist as well, and a translator himself—he’s most renowned for his Portuguese King Lear. He wrote political theory and history, too. But Portugal was very much a country of the few rich, a small middle class, and a lot of poor people, mostly industrial and agricultural workers. These latter were not readers, as such. So if I understand his motivations correctly, he knew that the masses were never going to sit down and study works of political theory and history. But he could communicate their political lessons in a palatable form that would actually create readers, because these new readers would see themselves, their class, and their struggle for democracy in these books.

Atkins: And if these works were always available, people could learn this history, in fictionalized form, and absorb its lessons.

Gordon: Exactly. Until now, of course, they’ve been out of reach to the English-reading public. And if you ask me—which you kind of just did—people should read these books because they illustrate what you have to do as an underground movement to fight and overthrow fascism. We may be closer to that in our own country, and in a few others I could think of, than we might care to believe. So let me just sneak in here a message to our readers: Vote this November like your life depends on it, because it surely does!

Atkins: The last book, Border Crossings, had a common theme—people escaping from Portugal for political reasons, and also returning to rejoin the struggle. Is there a theme to The Slackers?

Gordon: Not really. There are five stories. The title story, and it’s quite amusing, refers to the time in late 1939-early 1940 when Cunhal was forced to perform his military service in a disciplinary company of “slackers,” that is, misfits, rebels, incorrigibles. The cover photo is of Cunhal during that brief two- or three-month period. The last story is almost timeless and speaks of rural life under the sway of a wealthy heiress to a huge latifundia with many workers. She is a strange character, thwarted in love by the premature death of her beloved young husband, generous to his nieces, but also controlling and selfish. That story takes place maybe between the 1920s and 1960s.

Atkins: I bet Cunhal would be quite surprised to see that photo of himself on the cover of this book. He couldn’t have felt very proud of being seen as a member of the Portuguese fascist army.

Gordon: Surprised? Shocked, I think! But pleasantly, I believe. This was a short episode in his life, but obviously a memorable one, from which he extracted this very humorous story. Which, after all, he used as the title story of one of his collections, so it’s not like he was hiding it or anything. In fact, we did have to cajole Edições Avante! a bit to get permission for it, but there really was no better image for the book, and I think it looks quite striking.

The three middle stories take place after the 1974 Revolution, which is a switch from the “how to fight fascism” motif of most of the other books. One is a teenage love story, another a somewhat mystical tale of a lost little girl which may actually say more about the guy who almost loses himself looking for the girl. “Parallel Stories” is the true centerpiece of the collection, essentially a novella. Fascism has been overturned, and we meet the cadre of a small regional Communist Party organization struggling with its past as primarily a clandestine party of the working class when at the present time the working class itself is undergoing profound changes. In this rural district, factories are mostly shut, and agricultural workers and small farmers, with whom the party has little experience, are the most class-conscious ones.

Atkins: Is Cunhal writing here in the Socialist Realism esthetic?

Gordon: Yes and no. Stylistically perhaps so. But while the central conflict in this story is ultimately and always about the exploited proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, Cunhal focuses on the “battle of ideas” within the party itself—the ones stuck in ossified thinking and the mostly younger ones, less well-read, you could say, but willing to stick their necks out and try new approaches even if they might fail. Of course it ends with the requisite Socialist Realist optimism.

Atkins: I can’t even recall any fiction that I’ve ever run across where these kinds of intra-party debates are the focus of the action.

Gordon: Yeah, well, that’s what I mean about the uniqueness of this body of work and about developing a real readership. People want to read about themselves and their own issues and problems. Now the Portuguese Communist Party is, proportionate to the country’s population, one of the largest—perhaps the largest—in the world. So if even half of its members purchase a copy of this book, that’s a lot of sales!

Atkins: Maybe it would be a good title for a Marxist Book Club to adopt and read and discuss.

Gordon: Yes, it would—and several others in this series, too. This particular collection stands out because among its five stories there’s such a wide range of social classes, ages, and professions of his characters, as well as locales of the action. At one point in the last story, he even takes us briefly to Portugal’s African colony of Angola.

Some of the comrades sitting in a local office of the Portuguese Communist Party in 1975. | Public Domain

Atkins: It sounds like a composite mosaic of a nation before the Revolution, during it, and after.

Gordon: It is. Portugal went through some momentous historic transformations, and in this book we find aspects from each of those time periods.

Atkins: Good luck with it. And what else is still to come?

Gordon: The Slackers is the fifth book, as you said. There are three more coming. Actually, we’ve tried an experiment at the end of The Slackers by offering a “teaser” first chapter of the next one, Eulalia’s House, a full-scale novel that captures Cunhal’s time in Madrid during the dramatic early months of the Spanish Civil War. That will be followed by A Line in the Sand, which takes place one year after the Revolution when the fascists attempt a coup to restore themselves to power. The last, and biggest, is Until Tomorrow, Comrades, which centers on a regional general strike during World War II. In that one, although it has many finely etched individual characters, the collective protagonist as such would have to be the party itself, its leadership, methodology, and influence, and yes, its mistakes, too. I would have to say, though each book has tremendous interest for their own different reasons, this last one that we’re publishing has to be considered Tiago’s masterpiece. A Portuguese TV miniseries was made of it—it’s that seminal to the Revolutionary consciousness in that country. These have all been translated and are in various stages of production.

Atkins: Thank you again, Eric, for your time and your insight. Are you taking a break now or what?

Gordon: Thank you! Well, I’ve been bitten hard by the translator’s bug, so I’m now working on a contemporary Brazilian novel, but no contracts have been signed and I can’t say more. A luta continua, as they say.

Pick up The Slackers and Other Stories, as well as other books in the Manuel Tiago series, from International Publishers.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.