‘The Six-Pointed Star,’ novel by Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal) in adept English
An employee of the Torre do Tombo National Archive opens a prison cell peephole revealing inmate mugshots at an exhibition on the former fascist regime's political police, known by its acronym PIDE-DGS, in Lisbon. Prisoners arrested by PIDE-DGS often ended up at the notorious Lisbon penitentiary that is the backdrop for 'The Six Pointed Star.' | Luisa Ferreira / AP

“Write about what you know” is a well-known bit of advice given to those who aspire to become great writers. It is naïve to suppose that writers should become known in direct proportion to their greatness; however, this paradoxical status is occasionally remedied by an equally talented translator who can rescue them from what might have been a sepulcher of oblivion.

To this reviewer’s mind, both conditions have been met in Eric A. Gordon’s translation of The Six-Pointed Star, written by the Portuguese writer Álvaro Cunhal (1913-2005), who wrote under the pen name of Manuel Tiago, and recently issued by International Publishers. Edições Avante!  first published the book in 1974 and, until he died, he never saw a single work of his fiction translated into English.

The novel takes place in a prison in Lisbon, known simply as A estrela de seis pontas, due to its architectural design, which became the title of the novel in Portuguese. Mr. Cunhal certainly had the “credentials” to write about what he knew of this prison. He was incarcerated there from 1949-1956 by the fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, which lasted from 1932 to 1968 and for a few more years under his successors—and thus a contemporary of the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in neighboring Spain (1939-1975). Few people in the U.S. are familiar with the fascist regimes in either country, but Portugal’s repressive government is even less well known, making Gordon’s project of translating Cunhal’s novels valuable windows into that dark corner of Europe. The first in the series was his translation of Five Days, Five Nights, also published by International Publishers (2020).

Prior to Cunhal’s incarceration of over seven years, during which he spent 14 months in solitary confinement, he had lived a clandestine existence for eight years because of his Communist Party affiliation. These conditions led to health problems that got him transferred to the infirmary of this infamous prison, where social conditions allowed him to get to know the prisoners who found fictional life in this novel. Just as important, his poor health got him transferred to another prison, the Fort of Peniche, from which, on Jan. 3, 1960, he and nine other comrades made an escape so bold and spectacular that, according to Gordon, it has gone down as one of the “most daring escapes in history of the world communist movement” (p. x). Despite his ill health, after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, Cunhal recovered well enough to rise to occupy a long series of high-level positions in government and Party leadership until the year before he died. As testimony to his greatness in Portugal, over 500,000 people attended his funeral.

Looking at this novel from above, one sees that it is structured around a frame—two bookend scenes from outside the prison walls. In both, a young boy walking with his mother along a promenade asks what the impressive building is. Before the mother can attempt to answer, the narrator steps in and observes that from the outside, the massive structure could appear to be “the ancient castle of a great lord,” an explanation which would appeal to the imagination of a young boy, but is quick to note that certain architectural details contradict that fanciful impression: grated windows and a massiveness that “manifested a suspect grandiosity” (p. 3).

From that point, a third-person narrator who seems omniscient at times, takes the reader inside the prison, peeling back the symmetrical architecture of its six wings to the inside where, for just over 100 pages, readers come to know the prisoners until the other bookend scene, which returns to the promenade. The boy asks about the bars on the windows, to which his mother replies, “I don’t know, son…. Maybe because there’s a lot of treasures inside and they’re afraid thieves could break into the palace and steal them” (p. 105). Before the boy can ask another question, as boys seem to always do, “an electric tram rattled by” and the narrator tells us that the boy didn’t ask his question which was “just as well—because maybe the mother wouldn’t have known what to answer.”

The narrator also describes the prison in general terms at two points in the novel. At the beginning, shortly after the first scene with the boy and his mother, we read: “This is not the world that the passerby on the street out front could imagine, looking at the noble, fortified façade with towers of white stone hinting—beyond the walls topped by stately battlements—at cool parks and gardens” (p. 5). Much later on, there is a brief episode that mocks well-intended attempts to understand life on the inside. “A well-known author…asked the prison…to stay locked up in a cell for twenty-four hours.…” (p. 80). The author “wanted to have first-hand experience of how a man sentenced to fifteen years of maximum security prison would feel” (p. 80). The mockery is rather obvious. The narrator concludes this episode thus: “It’s not known if the novel, once written and published, was ever sent to the prison library. Therefore, it’s not known if any prisoner had a chance to read it. It would be interesting to hear their opinions” (p. 81).  This statement is reinforced in the final scene when the mother has no answer to offer her little boy because no one outside can know.

From early in the novel, the narrator privileges readers with a clear vision of what was going on in prisons during Salazar’s regime. If they have been paying attention, they come away with highly nuanced views of the so-called system of justice, of crime and of the circumstances and decisions that can turn ordinary people into criminals.

Between the two bookends, the narrator depicts life “on the inside” and dissects the characters of a sampling of the 500 incarcerated men. Readers come to know of their interactions and relationships with each other, themselves, guards, and how the circumstances of their lives and their own actions brought them there. The nuanced lesson repeated in many ways is that no two crimes are identical, nor are two criminals. It is valuable to read three of Cunhal’s observations about these topics, as related by the narrator. First, we read: “The word ‘homicide’ classifies the crime, but neither describes nor characterizes it. Different situations, different reasons, different motivations, different weapons” (p. 25). Further: “Every condemned man could be classified in judicial terms according to the crime committed…. [B]ut solely by the crime committed, no rigorous classification can be made of them as human beings. Classified in legal terms alone, the crime does not in and of itself define the man” (p. 31). Finally we read: “There are killers who are neither worse nor better than many who never killed anyone and never would. There are others whose dark behavior surpasses the imaginable in a human being that in and of itself can only be explained by insanity” (p. 54).

The Six-Pointed Star can be grouped and compared favorably with other novels, play and films which are set in prisons. Several of these, and the most relevant, happen to be by Latin American writers. These include the autobiographical short novel El apando (1969), by the Mexican author José Revueltas (apando means a punishment chamber or cell). Another is the one-act, autobiographical play Círculo vicioso (1974) by the Mexican playwright José Agustín, a contemporary of Revueltas. Both of these authors are representatives of the ondero movement of the 1960s and both works are set in Lecumberri prison in Mexico City, infamous for incarcerating and torturing “left-leaning” political prisoners (and members of their families, including infants, while they were forced to look on).

The Six-Pointed Star can also be compared with another Latin American novel, El beso de la mujer araña (1976) by the Argentine writer Manuel Puig. Many readers will recall this as a Hollywood movie entitled The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), starring William Hurt, Raúl Julia and Sonia Braga. In addition to being set in a prison and involving a political prisoner, Valentín (played by Hurt), this work embeds serious examinations of homosexuality, as well as how governments exploit other prisoners to gather intelligence on those who are opposed to a current regime and who are imprisoned for that purpose. The issues of homosexuality are more closely examined in many footnotes in the novel, something that cannot be done so easily in a film.

Less related due to time, language, culture and motivation, are Papillon (1973), which is loosely connected to the real character of Henri Charrière, imprisoned on Devil’s Island; Midnight Express (1978), whose screenwriter was Oliver Stone; and even Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, recently in movie form in 2002. These works, like other American movies of the gangster genre, have little to nothing to do with political protest and are thrillers. By comparison, the Latin American works share a motive. They denounce the corruption on the “inside” by exposing prisons as a reflection of the corruption on the “outside.”

Cunhal’s artistic genius for depicting his characters in words is akin to the talent needed to paint a stunning and unforgettable vignette. This genius has been matched by Gordon’s adeptness as a translator: He has apprehended the subtleties depicted on the original canvas and transferred them to the English canvas without smudging the colors.

No doubt each reader will be attracted to, intrigued and repulsed by different characters, but for me, Silvino, Viseu and Garino stand out. Silvino because prison has not killed his fascination with the natural world; Viseu because he allowed himself to go to prison rather than his brother; and Garino because his story shows how hunger can drive a person to commit “crimes” which, if society were organized on a socialist model, would never have been necessary. Cunhal also had to select which, among the 500 prisoners, he would use as inspiration; yet after all these efforts, the narrator reports that there is really only one story: their collective predicament of incarceration, whether they will survive long enough to be released or leave in an overcoat made of planks.

There are also three Communist prisoners in this novel, held in C-Wing’s third balcony. One is transported out and never heard from again, and one dies from a hunger strike. The third remains out of sight but is a constant source of intrigue to the other prisoners. In fact, establishing contact with the Communist seemed to be an act of resistance which they welcomed, whether or not they were sympathetic to his politics. Some took up the challenge as an opportunity to exert their personal and collective agency in this supremely dehumanizing environment. The prisoner who dies from hunger is the only one whose inspiration can be identified with a real person: Militão Ribeiro, who, Gordon informs us, was arrested with Cunhal and who weighed only 37 kilos when he died on Jan. 2, 1950.

As I read and was introduced to one character after another, the way that Cunhal brings them to life led me to recollect how other authors have handled characterization. At the same time, I found myself needing to flip back and forth as different characters reemerged, interacting with others. This may be perceived by some readers as a weakness; however, I see it as a collection of vignettes that reveal related and intertwined lives. Readers will get a lot more out of this novel if they re-read it and take the trouble to put the pieces together.

The characterization techniques of authors of other works of literature came to mind, such as Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1392). Even though Cunhal doesn’t hand the narration over to the prisoners for a first-person treatment as Chaucer did, the uniqueness of each is shown to readers through their actions and some narrator interpretation; they are not merely described to readers.  While Boccaccio’s Decameron (written in 1351, published in 1741) is also a framed tale, his group of seven women and three men are sheltering voluntarily outside Florence, Italy, to escape from the plague and they also tell their tales to entertain each other.

The third-person narrator in The Six-Pointed Star ironically but appropriately retains the imprisoned condition of the prisoners, yet also allowing them to speak for themselves in often piquant language as one might expect. As one who in real life did escape, Cunhal as narrator became the voice for many who remained and continues to be a voice for many who remain confined. This is poignantly true for those who are political prisoners who either never get out or who lack the ability or opportunity to tell their stories.

In the way he depicts characters, Cunhal is more similar to and contemporary with John Steinbeck, who created a ragtag group of single men, societal misfits because they are exemplary victims of the collateral damage of the Great Depression. Despite these circumstances, their humanity comes through, often in heartwarming ways, as they do favors for others when they are the ones most in need. Cunhal also allows a bit of light to pierce the thick mortar of the prison. Except for the very worst among the prisoners, their yet noble lives, with all their broken parts, are illuminated by showing their talents and often their awe at living things, such as is the case with Silvino. The author returns their individuality to them, as contrasted with the label of, for instance, “murderer,” “embezzler,” or even “rapist.” These moments of humanization are reminiscent of similar ones depicted in the lives of the admittedly less offensive inhabitants of the Palace Flophouse in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) and its sequel Sweet Thursday (1954).

The characters in all these works have been assembled in the same narrative space, willingly or not, by some external circumstance (i.e., the plague, a pilgrimage, the Great Depression or incarceration) where their characters can be revealed and examined by letting them tell their own tales, tell others’ tales, or having their tales told almost exclusively by a third-person narrator, as in The Six-Pointed Star. The comparisons with other artists can be summed up by the observation that the characters are alive and present for readers because of the talent the authors (and their able translators) had for just the right amount of detail in exposition, description and narration.

One other feature of this English publication is that Gordon has included discussion or study questions at the end. They are very useful for individual readers to “check their comprehension,” as the expression goes. Though they appear at the end, their function is brilliantly Brechtian: an attempt to ensure that Cunhal’s valuable messages and lessons are not lost on those who read for entertainment.

In an intriguing way, both Cunhal and Gordon have freed these men from their figurative confinement and given them lives more transcendent and potentially impactful than the fascist regime that physically locked up 500 men in real life. Comparing this novel with the treatment of dissidents, particularly Communists in the USA, one can easily find many political prisoners, falsely accused of “un-American activities” and even executed despite their innocence.

While some may say the days of the Red Scare are over, the rumblings from the Trump factions are reminders that they are not. Most of the time, dissidents in the USA are either ignored, ridiculed, slandered or denied having a voice, prevented from obtaining or retaining a job. How this may develop in the U.S., no one can say, but I am reminded of the case of the Chilean singer, and songwriter Víctor Jara (1932-1973). Aside from Pinochet, the names of his tormentors and executioners aren’t generally remembered, but Víctor Jara and his music are because he was a builder, not a destroyer. The same is true of Cunhal and the other artists who assert their voices to tell their stories and give voice to others. Gordon’s excellent translation has just expanded the Portuguese author’s audience to the whole English-speaking world.

Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal)
The Six-Pointed Star
New York: International Publishers, 2020
112 pp., $19.99
Order here.
ISBN 10: 0-7178-0835-1


Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt

Eric W. Vogt is a professor emeritus of Spanish literature, language, and cultures. He has published several bilingual editions of works from original 17th-century manuscripts, articles on diverse English and Spanish contemporary authors, and books for learners of Spanish. His works have been published in Europe and in the Americas, including Cuba. Vogt also teaches courses on translation. Eric W. Vogt es profesor emérito de la literatura, lengua y culturas españolas. Ha publicado varias ediciones bilingües de obras de manuscritos originales del siglo XVII, artículos sobre diversos autores contemporáneos en inglés y español y libros para estudiantes de español. Sus obras se han salido en Europa y en las Américas, inclusive en Cuba. Vogt también enseña cursos de traducción.