‘The Slackers and Other Stories’: Earnest purpose, useful lessons and enjoyable reading
Alvaro Cunhal in military service during his youth, and as Communist Party leader later in life. | via PCP

The portrait on the cover of Eric A. Gordon’s recently released translation of Manuel Tiago’s short story collection The Slackers and Other Stories is of a young, devastatingly handsome soldier who turns out to be none other than the author himself as a young “slacker.” The life of Álvaro Cunhal, long-time Communist Party functionary and leader who wrote fiction under the name Manuel Tiago, is a story of patience, confidence, and unshakable belief that the workers of Portugal could liberate their homeland from the yoke of fascist dictatorship, something they managed to achieve in 1974.

Readers will discover that Gordon’s faith and perspicacity in translating Cunhal/Tiago’s sizable obra into an eight-volume set of tales of war, peace, political struggle, and prison in plainspoken, absorbable English is a godsend for armchair travelers and great reading. These deft translations, the first ever into English, bring Western Europe’s least known country into focus at a time when many Americans are discovering it as one of the last peaceful places on the planet.

Tiago wrote about the adventures and foibles, bravery and compassion of several generations of his countrymen and women with heart, understanding, and optimism at a time when Portugal struggled to loosen the knot of autocracy, breathe freely and celebrate its hard-won independence.

The Slackers, comprising five separate short stories (one of them, in 40 short episodes, almost novella-length), presents small slices of historical fiction about the land the Romans called “Lusitania.” The cover story, arguably the best of them, is a fictionalized autobiographical account of a time in late 1939 and early 1940 when the author was forced to serve in a kind of “correctional” military unit with a grab bag of other characters who also had failed their obligatory military service—thus the term “slackers,” often used in a military context.

In a fascist society that stressed conformism and duty to the state, these young men stand out not necessarily as heroic figures in militant opposition to an oppressive régime, but as ordinary schnooks, each with his own backstory, who simply wanted to get on with their lives without having to submit to military discipline. Some of them are kind of natural anarchists, others are simply too messed-up psychologically to withstand the rigors of military training. Reinaldo, the “slacker” most closely modeled on the author, is neither a schnook nor psychologically messed-up, but an open Communist. His C.O. assigns him a make-work library job meant to isolate him from the other men, but Reinaldo quickly understands the strategy and returns to the company of his fellows. It’s one of the most comic adventures in all of Tiago’s obra, with any number of moments when I broke out laughing picturing the scene.

Most of Tiago’s writings focus on the fascist period. His more or less consistent “socialist realism” approach is frankly meant to serve a didactic purpose. He is obviously putting into accessible fictional form the lessons about struggle and victory over fascism that he wants his readers to absorb. But two of these five stories (maybe three) deal with the post-1974 period, when the Portuguese Communist Party is for the first time allowed to function openly under a democratic constitutional system. These settings, one in the capital city of Lisbon and another in a fictionalized agricultural district, depict the lives and loves of Party members in their personal and political dimensions.

In “Hand in Hand,” we meet a young couple who seem made for one another. But a challenge to their relationship arises in the form of a months-long educational course in a foreign land (likely the USSR) for Luís, and Célia feels used and abandoned. The strictures of the short-story form do not permit exploration of these characters in great depth, but the author attempts to enter their hearts to find emotional resonances that go far beyond the slogans they chant on protest marches.

In “Parallel Stories,” we meet the habitués of what we could call a Communist Party club in a rural area where, as opposed to the attention the Party normally pays to the industrial proletariat, the need here is to understand agricultural workers who are less educated and more religious—not the usual Party demographic. That’s one “parallel story.” But a second “parallel story” involves the older ideologues of the Party who are stuck in their old ideological frameworks and are incapable of adjusting their thinking to the new era, where the younger, newer comrades seek to create a welcoming home for themselves and the people they know. Here one grasps both the limitations and the contributions of the author. A reader cannot delve into this story and be constantly struck by Tiago’s literary prowess—that is truly a thin gruel in a story like this. On the other hand, Tiago tackles issues and problems that comrades, in Portugal and presumably elsewhere, must deal with in their day-to-day political lives, and where else would readers find this subject matter? It’s pretty rare in fiction, and we have Tiago to thank for helping to fill in this particular gap. It remains to be seen if a wider audience than the already politically “woke” will find this fiction of interest.

The final story in the collection is “Lives,” a telescoped family saga that extends over the course of 70 years or so. One could argue that it’s not really about these people so much, but about the “idiocy of village life,” as Marx put it, meaning the year-after-year continuity of undistinguished rural life in a highly disproportionately privileged society. Despite some sharp personal portrayals of individual people in the story, especially the protagonist Dona Glória, who selfishly rules the manse for generations, time has more or less stood still. The lives Tiago depicts here are of the kind that within a generation are forgotten to history. There’s a Chekhovian sense about these useless characters waiting, marking time, conscious of their own insignificance. All the while, in the background, productive life continues to operate smoothly, rendering a steady, reliable income to the otiose lords and ladies of the land.

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

It is possible, I believe, to write fiction that may fall short of the literary heights, yet also successfully convey the ethos of a time and place through its characters and situations. Perhaps readers in English will not appreciate this to the same degree, but Tiago captured the spirit and the experience of Portuguese people at all levels of society during the time he lived and almost single-handedly created a community of readers who wanted to see themselves and their problems treated in fiction. Any final assessment of Tiago as a writer must take this factor into account.

In the meantime, a book like this has its many pleasures and—something one doesn’t see in books of fiction very often—there’s a very provocative set of “Questions to Ponder and Discuss” at the end that may help readers think through what they have just read and wonder if they got all of the author’s implications on a first read. It’s a book I’m glad to have encountered.

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


Peter Lownds
Peter Lownds

Peter Lownds is an author and translator living in Los Angeles.