‘Until Tomorrow, Comrades’ completes Manuel Tiago translation project: An interview with the translator
Álvaro Cunhal depicted in a graphic that appeared on a cover of 'The African Communist' in October 1975. | Via The African Communist

Until Tomorrow, Comrades has just been published as the eighth and final entry in the International Publishers project of issuing all of Manuel Tiago’s fiction in English. Manuel Tiago was the pen name for longtime Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) leader Álvaro Cunhal. People’s World interviews the translator, our staff colleague and Cultural Editor Eric A. Gordon.

C.J. Atkins: Wow, Eric, you’ve done it! Eight books! Congratulations! I suppose completing this project must represent some kind of historical first.

Eric A. Gordon: It most certainly is! You know, as well-known as Álvaro Cunhal is, or was for so many years, I’m actually surprised that likeminded people and publishers in other countries have not seen fit to do what I’ve done—make his fictional work available in their own languages so readers can learn, enjoy and grow from it. A few of his books have appeared in Spanish, French, Russian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and maybe a couple of other languages, but his entire obra has not been made available in any other language until now, English, with this project. So, I’ll always be proud of that distinction. The series is complete now as we head into the 50th year, a half century since the 1974 April Revolution.

Atkins: Why did you leave this one for last, or was that purely coincidental?

Gordon: No, it was my intention from the start to do Until Tomorrow, Comrades last for two reasons: As a sort of grand finale to the project, and because, knowing how seminal a work this had become not just in Portuguese literature but in the entire cultural understanding of the fascist period, I wanted to become as practiced and fluent with Tiago’s language and thought as I possibly could with the intervening eight other titles (seven in English because we combined a separate novella into the collection The 3rd Floor).

Mugshots of Álvaro Cunhal when he was arrested by Salazar’s secret police. In this photo, he was around the same age as the character André, the young activist on the run in ‘Five Days, Five Nights.’

Until Tomorrow, Comrades has enjoyed at least 12 printings, the most of any of his fictional works, I believe, testament to its continued popularity amongst the reading public in Portugal, for a total of more than 50,000 copies. Considering the population of Portugal (about 10 million), that’s considered a literary classic.

Until Tomorrow, Comrades was made into a six-episode miniseries in 2013, anchoring its significance as an Urtext of the long-contested Portuguese democracy. Popular as that series was, nothing can replace the intense, tight focus on these few comrades’ lives that we find in the epic novel. And how many novels, in any language, feature as lead characters active, committed Communist Party members? Not many! The terms “sprawling” and “granular” for a literary work were coined for exactly a book like this.

Atkins: So, I take it this was not the last fictional work he wrote.

Gordon: No. Actually, it was one of his first, and it’s by far the longest and most complex of the series. Cunhal wrote it during the 1950s, alongside the much shorter novella Five Days, Five Nights, in a high-security prison. Cunhal left the novella behind when he escaped Peniche Fortress on Jan. 3, 1960, but took with him the precious manuscript of Até amanhã, camaradas. So, we began the series in 2020 with Five Days, Five Nights, and we’re ending in 2023 with Until Tomorrow, Comrades.

Atkins: Full circle!

Gordon: Exactly. Actually, I believe the survival of this manuscript is a kind of literary miracle. It must have run over a thousand pages—the printed Portuguese text has 539. Considering the precariousness of Cunhal’s underground existence and exile for the next 14 years, until Portugal’s armed forces overthrew the almost 50-year-long fascist regime, this novel represents the last thing he wanted and might have been able to say to the world. Fortunately, it, and its author, survived.

Atkins: Briefly, what is the novel about?

Gordon: The story closely mirrors actual events and movements that the Communist Party promulgated in the early 1940s. Beginning in 1942, regional and general strikes with thousands of workers in the fields and the factories paralyzed the Portuguese economy, both in the capital and in the more rural areas, protesting hunger, unlivable wages, and the lack of foodstuffs. You have to understand that much of Portugal’s produce was being sent to Nazi Germany to feed the troops. The Communists’ bold strategy inevitably exposed numerous comrades, who suffered imprisonment, poor health, and death—a risk dedicated party members naturally assumed. But how else could the Portuguese people assert their demands and be heard?

In the novel, the general strike is set for a certain Monday in May, but remember, this is fiction and the author takes certain liberties. We are not told in exactly what part of Portugal these events are taking place, only that it’s an area with a few industrial plants, a large rural labor market—but we don’t even know what crops are being harvested—and a few small cities where professionals such as lawyers and dentists have offices. It’s a composite of the larger Portuguese demographic. The succession of events is telescoped into a few months leading up to a mass general strike.

‘Until Tomorrow, Comrades’ is the eighth and final book in the Manuel Tiago series issued by International Publishers.

These movements firmly established the PCP in the popular mind as the most consistent force opposing the regime. Even while acknowledging that resistance could be severely punished, and individuals would suffer dearly, thousands of people continued to show their discontent by marching on May Day and participating in other mass actions to demonstrate their fearlessness.

This novel is not strictly autobiographical, though clearly it reflects Cunhal’s lived experience. Much is made in the story of the importance of disseminating the underground press, and we know that Cunhal was in fact the editor-in-chief of the party’s newspaper, Avante!, during the years 1943-47, and again in 1948-49. We feature a graphic on the cover illustrating the centrality of the clandestinely printed word in educating the people.

I feel it’s fair to say that if there were any one author and novel that most served as Cunhal’s inspiration, it would be Émile Zola’s Germinal, which was also an in-depth portrait of a society in the throes of a massive strike—by coal miners in that story.

Atkins: And when did Cunhal start publishing his fiction?

Gordon: When he returned from exile to a free Portugal in 1974, the prison guards returned the abandoned novella that had been retained in his prisoner file. So, both these books were published soon after Portugal’s liberation, under the pseudonym of Manuel Tiago. Cunhal did not want readers to associate these books with him as the very public persona of the PCP. He preferred that these works of fiction have a life of their own under another name.

Clearly Cunhal, and the PCP, intended these two fictional works to launch a new era in Portuguese literature and to ensure that the lessons learned in the decades-long struggle for democracy would be recorded, hopefully forever, in these fictional forms, where ordinary working people could see themselves as protagonists. The party must have been concerned, too, that democracy might not last, so immediate publication was the only guarantee of these works’ release to the world.

The $64,000 question

Atkins: As these books have rolled off the press, People’s World has covered each one in turn. But now that they’re all out, let me ask you the $64,000 question. I know you translated them in a certain order, but to the reader that’s not especially relevant now. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I suspect there aren’t very many people who are going to read them all. So, in what order should they read the Tiago catalog, from the best and most important to…well…the lesser and maybe not so memorable work?

Gordon: Somehow, I was afraid you’d ask me this! But, hey, it’s a fair question. No writer or artist is always going to be at the top of their game, and let’s face it, eventually a critical consensus will take shape.

Well, just to start off, every one of these books has its points to make, and in one novel and in a few stories, the action takes place post-1974, where Tiago goes into some of the problems of reimagining party life under open, democratic conditions. Most, however, treat the struggle against the actual fascist reality that was Portugal for almost half a century.

But I won’t be evasive, and I’ll try to offer my own assessment, both as a guide to today’s readers and maybe even to weigh in, as the translator, to the larger conversation that will take place over the years to come about this body of work.

For reasons I’ve explained, I have to say Until Tomorrow, Comrades is Tiago’s masterpiece—the longest and most complex of all his work, the one most likely to fully grab the reader by the throat, with the most deeply etched set of characters.

Álvaro Cunhal, right holding a white flower, led Portugal’s Communist Party for half a century and became a national hero after the overthrow of the country’s dictatorship. Here, he is embraced by supporters during a rally amidst Portugal’s 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution.’ Cunhal spent nearly 35 years underground or in jail for his role in building the Communists into the only well-organized opposition to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar and then Marcelo Caetano. | Acacio Franco / AP

I’m particularly fond of The Six-Pointed Star, the pen portrait of a maximum security prison in Lisbon, with all its unsavory characters both behind and outside of bars. It reveals the cruelty of the fascist system at its worst. It’s often said that one can judge a sociopolitical system by the way it treats its prisoners, and that is so true here. Yet, there is also great humanity, wisdom, and even humor in this book. And I think it’s so topical to struggles here in the belly of the beast where prison reform, if not actual abolition, is attracting widespread support as we learn of such terrible abuses.

After that, I think Five Days, Five Nights would be a very satisfying read—short and punchy, with two male principal characters who don’t like each other, and whom we don’t especially like either. This book was made into a full-length film in Portugal and continues to win readers. It’s probably Tiago’s globally best-known work. This title was the first International Publishers issue, suggested by Edições Avante!, the Portuguese publisher, which felt that, given its popularity in Portugal and its global renown, this short work would be the most appropriate title to start interesting an English-reading public in Tiago’s work.

Eulalia’s House, centered on the early months of the Spanish Civil War and reflecting the author’s personal, youthful experience, is noteworthy for giving prominence to female characters. Like Until Tomorrow, Comrades, it has well-developed protagonists who in the first place are engaged with actual historical events and battles, and also have profound doubts and questions about the choices they’ve made in life. I get the feeling that in this book, more than in any other, Cunhal himself is challenging the tenets of Social Realism as he acknowledges that easy answers in difficult situations are not to be found. Internationally, some critics have cited Eulalia as Tiago’s best work.

Atkins: OK, four down, four to go. The tension is mounting!

Gordon:  Well, you know, I really don’t enjoy doing this. It’s like prioritizing which of my fingers I’m willing to sacrifice! But in a way, the rest follow a kind of natural sequence:

Books 5, 6, and 7—and again, this is totally my own subjective estimation—are Tiago’s short story collections. Border Crossings has some wonderful tales with a lot of suspense, about clandestine passages in and out of Portugal, and across other national borders. It’s real undercover spy stuff—disguises, false passports, stowaways on oceangoing ships, one-eyed Nazis in closed train compartments, contraband, mixed-up suitcases, strenuous hikes over mountain passages, language confusions, keeping a step ahead of the police and border guards, and always the tight coordination of secretive networks of international comrades. Fun!

The 3rd Floor has an exciting prison escape and Tiago’s only murder mystery. This is the volume in which we combined the novella Struggle and Life, that we thought too short to publish independently, and also too stylistically rigid in the Social Realist genre. Personally, however, I feel that despite those drawbacks, it’s an excellent manual (fictionalized, of course) as to how a vanguard party functions in the labor movement under fascist conditions and is worth studying.

The Slackers has a very funny, absurdist title story, about the few months in 1939-40 when Cunhal was forced to complete his obligatory military service, and “Parallel Stories,” which takes place in the post-1974 period and depicts a more or less generational confrontation over how the party organizes in a largely rural district.

Finally, we have, again, a post-April 1974 story in A Line in the Sand. It takes place later that same year when the fascists attempt a comeback and the party, with little help from any other organized political force, successfully leads the resistance. Although I’m placing this last, it truly pains me to do it. I have to restate there’s a great deal of valuable stuff here too—how to be understanding, transparent, decisive, empathic, almost a guide to the kind of new, fully human being we envision for ourselves “after the revolution.” At the same time, it’s patently didactic, and if I’m thinking honestly of the long-term critical and literary reception for these books, this one, to me, is farthest from the most persuasive—even though factually based on a pivotal episode that cemented the Revolution and made impossible a return to the ugly past.

Tens of thousands of mourners react as the flag-draped coffin of Álvaro Cunhal passes through the streets of Lisbon, June 15, 2005. | Paulo Duarte / AP

Atkins: Thank you. I can see that was not an easy question for you.

Gordon: Right. Well, I think it was necessary, though. As undoubtedly the one person in the English-speaking world who knows these books best, I think before I depart the scene it was important for me to express myself, if for no other reason than to start laying a groundwork for the eventual assessment of this work in the future. So, thank you! Although I should underline that readers will have their different reasons for approaching these books and my assessment is only my most generalized.

Atkins: I have to say, International Publishers really put their hearts into this project. Each book is visually stunning. Would you want to see book clubs and reader circles taking these books up?

Gordon: Absolutely! In fact, that was my dream from the beginning. If you’re an anti-fascist in the world today, I hope you would start reading some of these books, especially as a group or collective, and discuss them for all the lessons they offer. And it’s why I included a set of discussion questions at the end of each volume that a book club could start grappling with. That’s another way in which I felt, as the person introducing these works to the English-reading public, I owed it to readers to leave this additional, shall I say enhanced legacy behind me.

Atkins: Terrific, Eric. Well, this project is winding down, and again, our congratulations. But I know you well. I’m sure your fertile brain is brimming with future projects of one kind or another.

Gordon: Could be. Could be.

Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal)
Until Tomorrow, Comrades
Translated from Portuguese by Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2023
ISBN: 9780717809387

Order here.

And see the full Manuel Tiago series from International.

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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.