Portuguese fascist prison novel speaks to the incarceration experience everywhere

There are many calls today for abolishing the police or, in actuality, establishing a downsized police force and allowing social workers to respond to calls for help not with a badge and a gun but with an understanding of the problems that plague troubled and impoverished communities. The same can be said for prisons, where, especially in the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world, large scale reforms are needed.

U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, seen here in 1995. | AP

This social fact is driven home by the recent publication of the Portuguese author Manuel Tiago’s fictionalized version of his own prison experience in The Six-Pointed Star, in a first translation into English by Eric A. Gordon. This is the nickname given to Lisbon’s fortress-like carceral building with a surveillance center and cells radiating out from it.

During the Salazar dictatorship, which ran parallel to Franco’s rule in Spain, the fortress housed prisoners guilty of crimes large and small. As the book relates, some were violently antisocial while others were a cry against the dictatorship’s inequality. Alongside these were of course those most dangerous of inmates, those imprisoned, as are Mumia Abu Jamal and others in the U.S., for their political ideals. Not to mention two other prominent global political prisoners whose incarceration under harsh conditions is being used to push them slowly and quietly toward death: Wikileaks Julian Assange and Hotel Rwanda’s Paul Rusesabagina, a cancer survivor kidnapped and detained in a Rwandan prison.

The layout of the prison with its columns radiating out from a central point seems modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the structure that was able to survey its inhabitants at all times. Michel Foucault then took this layout as the model for modern surveillance outside jailhouse walls, which has through the digital universe further extended this perpetual prison in which we are all being watched, monitored, and disciplined.

Tiago, the pen name for the Communist political activist Álvaro Cunhal, stresses the arbitrary nature of those locked in this system as the dictatorship reached its apogee in the 1950s. The author is struck, in getting to know the inmates, by the fact that the prison is filled with “killers who are neither worse nor better than one[s] who have never killed and never would,” adding, in terms of the unfairness of the system, that “many who committed crimes could well have spent their whole lives without doing them.”

This is a breathtaking novel of heartbreaking vignettes, aided by Gordon’s translation, which respects the timeframe but updates the lingo at moments where this is crucial to an understanding by a contemporary audience.   

The author suggests a strong contrast in the motives and circumstances of those locked up. Silvino, convicted of a number of robberies and break-ins, is recognized as “a good man” by guards and prisoners and is fascinated by his explorations into the animal kingdom. Augusto retaliates when a big landowner robbed his family, seduced his sister, and then threw them off their land. In anger at this injustice, he plugs the landowner at point blank range with a shotgun in a crime for which the prisoners forgive him. Garino, meanwhile, stole food, distributed it to his fellow villagers and for this was locked up for 12 years.

These crimes, the product of a ruthlessly unequal society, are differentiated from, for example, the doctor who drugged his patients and then raped them. Behind bars, he treats the other prisoners disdainfully as if he should not have been among them. Instead of showing actual remorse he makes a show and spectacle of prayer which he performs in front of guards and prison officials in a way that is designed to get him an early release. In this other group also is Argentino, who trafficked in women and, in a fit, kills his partner with, in this case, “the crime revealing the kind of man he was in the end.”

The subject of prison labor, in the U.S. South practiced in a prison system after Reconstruction overwhelmingly filled with Black prisoners and a substitute for slavery, is described in the novel as a scam. The prisoners earn a pittance for the most taxing work while then having to use two-thirds of their earnings to pay the cost of their cells, their food, and, not just their clothes, but the washing of them as well.

A liberal warden begins his stint at the prison enacting reforms, including the prisoners finally being allowed to eat together instead of their only collective experience being one hour in the yard. One prisoner dryly remarks, “This won’t last long,” and indeed it doesn’t as after a slight provocation the reforms are withdrawn.

Tiago’s, or Cunhal’s, own experience is reflected in the novel in the character of a political prisoner, locked in solitary, whom the other prisoners take pity on, attempting to smuggle soap to his cell as a way of acknowledging his presence. Cunhal was elected head of the Communist Youth Brigade in the 1930s, where his adventures included a visit to Moscow and two arrests. He was thrown into the Lisbon prison for good in 1949 and spent the first eight of his 11 years there in solitary. In 1960, after being transferred to a prison with less security, he escaped and rode out the dictatorship living in Moscow and Paris.

In 1975, after the fall of Salazar the year before, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, while also carving out a career as a novelist, writer of short stories, artist, and translator, notably of King Lear. His funeral in 2005 was attended by at least a half million Portuguese.

Scene from the 1947 film ‘Brute Force.’

Perhaps Cunhal’s most famous novel was A casa de Eulália (Eulalia’s House), on a Spanish Civil War theme, and his works were turned into Portuguese films and television series. The Six-Pointed Star is also a highly cinematic work recalling the Hollywood crime films of the 1940s. The story of a bandit in the hills which the prisoners follow and who is eventually gunned down by the police is eerily similar to Bogart’s doomed escaped con who falls in love with a blind woman in High Sierra.

The novel’s description of one prisoner’s body exiting the prison “wrapped in a topcoat of planks” recalls a moment in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang where one of the inmates upon his release rides out from the chain gang institution on top of the coffin of a dead inmate.

The doctor, who assists the prisoners as best he can but is replaced by an incompetent one whose mantra no matter the illness is the do-nothing “This will pass,” recalls both the kindly doctor and the hardened replacement regime in that greatest of all prison films, Brute Force.

There are prisoners who hang themselves after having all of their delusions broken, a stirring moment in the film which Cunhal describes in the novel. Others wither away. Such is the fate of Number 402, who made it over the walls but then collapsed in an injury that precipitated his slow decline. 402 describes the injustice of a system that has, like our own, foregone rehabilitation and is simply about a punitive exploitation: “I’m here for the rest of my life just on account of one second in my life.”

The desperation of these wasted lives who nevertheless make of this inhuman situation a kind of lively humanity is perhaps best summed up by the last line of Brute Force. The kindly doctor, as a post-mortem for prisoners mowed down in an escape attempt, says there is one thing that unites all of those in this situation. “Whoever they are, they’re gonna wanna get out.”

The Six-Pointed Star

By Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal)

Translated by Eric A. Gordon

International Publishers, 2020, 112 pp.

Available here.

This review was first published in Culture Matters.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.