Volume 3 of Manuel Tiago’s fiction appears: An interview with the translator
A woman holds red carnations - symbol of the resistance to the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal - at an event commemorating the overthrow of fascism. The Portuguese Communist Party, with Alvaro Cunhal (Manuel Tiago) at its head, was the key force leading the resistance movement. | Armando Franca / AP

We’re back for another all-cards-on-the-table chat about our favorite Portuguese writer, Álvaro Cunhal, the late leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, writing under the literary name of Manuel Tiago. Previously, we interviewed translator Eric Gordon about the first two volumes, Five Days, Five Nights and The Six-Pointed Star, in what’s projected to be an eight-book series. This time, we discuss the recent release of The 3rd Floor and Other Stories of the Portuguese Resistance by International Publishers.

C.J. Atkins: Welcome back, Eric. So how far along are you now with the Tiago project?

Eric A. Gordon: And a welcome back to you, to this little world that has absorbed almost all of my spare time. I really hate to say it, but with all the restrictions on leaving the house and socializing with people that COVID has imposed, it’s been a productive period to knuckle down and make a lot of headway. As we speak, I’m past the halfway point on the very last book of the series. Though, to be more precise, it’s the longest, most complex book of them all, Until Tomorrow, Comrades, so it will still be at least a couple of months or more before I can advance it to the next stage of the process.

Available from International Publishers. Link to order below.

Atkins: What are some of the highlights that we’re looking forward to?

Gordon: Well, I do have some favorites among his books. They’re all useful, I want to say, and of tremendous interest. But I especially like Border Crossings, another collection of short stories that’s number 4 in the series, and Eulalia’s House, number 6, which is a somewhat autobiographically based novel about the first months of the Spanish Civil War. And the grand finale, Until Tomorrow, Comrades, which in the end is probably his single most influential and enduring work, a sprawling, almost 19th-century-style novel in the grand manner.

Atkins: Actually, that reminds me that in our first chat, back when Five Days, Five Nights appeared, you—and I quote—used the term “uneven” about Tiago’s work. Can you amplify?

Gordon: Yeah, so I think we can all acknowledge that in any writer’s body of work—any artist, really—there are going to be some true standouts and other titles that never seem to capture the same fire, but they also have to be considered in the context of the total oeuvre. And who can ultimately account for this? Maybe the writer was taking on a subject very close to his heart and delved deep into his toolbox of talents to produce his best work; or maybe the subject had a kind of obligatory quality about it, sort of like, “This is something it would be instructive for me to write about.”

And when we’re dealing with someone of the stature of Álvaro Cunhal, not just his leadership positions, but genuinely with the remarkable artistic gifts he possessed, it’s clear he wanted to leave behind a corpus of work—both fiction and non-fiction, by the way—that would educate, clarify, explain, inspire for future generations. Some of the work is going to reflect more literary invention, and some of it is going to be, frankly, more utilitarian. Which means it has its uses too, even if judged by other than completely literary criteria. I hope I’m making myself clear: It’s all great stuff, but sometimes for different reasons, and there’s no shame in saying that.

Atkins: Are you saying this now in particular reference to The 3rd Floor?

Gordon: Definitely. I should say that the title in Portuguese is Sala 3 e outros contos. Another of his separately published titles is Lutas e vidas, um conto (“Struggles and Lives, a Story,” though in English we’re using the singular not the plural), the shortest of his books, a novella on the modest scale of Five Days, Five Nights. Since they are thematically connected, we combined these two titles into one for the English-language edition, adding “and Other Stories of the Portuguese Resistance” to give the reader a more specific reference to the content and timeframe of this collection. In all, there are four stories now gathered together here.

Is there some unevenness among them? Yes, speaking personally, I believe that’s the case, though readers may differ with me. I find some characterizations somewhat underdeveloped, with motivations sort of taken for granted and not fully explored. My reservations may have their roots elsewhere, however. The model of the stalwart political cadre who unquestioningly answers his party’s call for whatever assignment or task may be laid on him is almost everywhere now a thing of the past, at least in Western countries, though it was a staple of the genre we call Socialist Realism, which had its own very particular rules and esthetics. (And I use masculine pronouns advisedly because that’s basically whom Tiago wrote about in his era.)

I could argue—and I do, actually—that the extreme conditions of fascism dictated a strictly controlled, vertical system of command if the project of resistance were to be effective, which it eventually was. It was probably this very structure of severe self-discipline that kept the Portuguese Communist Party intact for all those long years and made it the opposition’s leading force. I can only stand back in reverent admiration for those Party members who sacrificed virtually every personal pleasure in life, and in some cases life itself, for the greater cause. It’s just that there are hardly any more parties like that any more, and few people who would submit themselves, with our modern sensibilities, to such almost cult-like regimentation.

Alvaro Cunhal, who led Portugal’s Communist Party for half a century and became a national hero after the overthrow of the country’s dictatorship, was also an author of fiction, writing under the name Manuel Tiago. | AP

So the fact that Tiago brings us into that clandestine world, so closely, so intimately, and leaves for us the legacy of that time and the demands it made on committed militants, outweighs—for me, at least—any perceived literary lapses. If the time should ever come, anywhere in the world where this level of organized underground resistance is called for, then these books must be picked up and studied.

Actually, People’s World might be interested in this: Passages in “Struggle and Life” refer to the Party press.

Atkins: That sounds intriguing.

Gordon: The protagonist of the story is Leonel, the local Party organizer—all underground, you remember. There’s a regional strike in Marinha Grande involving primarily a glass factory and a cement factory, as well as a file factory and a tableware factory. He writes an account of it for The Militant, while Vasco, one of the striking workers, writes it up for Avante! [Onward!], which by the way is still to this day the name of the PCP newspaper.

Vasco reads the draft of his article to Leonel. “Is it good?”

“It’s very good,” Leonel said. “But I think it would be helpful if you added two or three ideas.”

“Such as?”

“You’d want to refer to three decisive factors for victory. One was the existence of a leadership profoundly knowledgeable about the situation. Another was the contact with the masses of workers and the intimate, objective familiarity with their spirit and their resistance. And finally, the permanent, ongoing work of clarifying the issues. What do you think?”

That brings to the fore the role of the clandestine press and the importance of getting the story told in the most useful and inspiring way. Issues like that come up all the time in articles submitted to People’s World, for example, by people across the country involved in local struggles.

Atkins: That’s very true. Editors sometimes do have to get back to the author to tease out more of the backstory, or try to get a good quote from someone on the ground, or provide a photo. But I take it, that’s not all that’s in this collection of stories?

Gordon: Right. Aside from the more didactic stories, others have the virtue, from the reader’s point of view, of being suspense stories. In the title story: will the daring prison escape be successful, or will the prisoners fall from the ledge to their deaths? And the last story in the book is more or less a police procedural involving the colorful inhabitants of a small agricultural village. It’s Tiago’s sole, and I would say wholly skillful and often humorous venture into the murder mystery genre. Incidentally, none of the people I showed this story to for proofreading guessed the killer! I think if he had wanted to, Tiago could have had more of a career in this universally popular genre.

Atkins: That would really have been interesting. I know there’s a whole tradition of writers in the socialist countries, as well as writers in the West with a strong social conscience, who love the private detective and murder mystery forms. It gives them a lot of freedom to put society under a magnifying glass and to express their radical, humanistic views. Now, can we get a little hint about Border Crossings, the next book that you said is one of your favorites?

First edition of Avante! newspaper, Feb. 15, 1931. | Museo do Aljube

Gordon: Sure. I think every reader who picks up Border Crossings will love it—thirteen different stories, all drawn from Cunhal’s personal experiences, and those of his friends and comrades, involving clandestine border-jumping during the fascist era, on foot, by train, plane, or ship, with disguises, false papers, Nazis, undercover men, jewel smugglers, fur stoles, storms at sea, hikes over perilous mountain ranges, and so forth. Fun stuff.

Atkins: Looking forward to it.

Gordon: Thanks, C.J. I appreciate the opportunity to share the thoughts of a translator who—and I’m just going to say this out loud—is honestly bursting with pride to be the first person to make these wonderful works available to English-language readers. It’s a great honor and privilege, and something really concrete I can leave behind. Thanks for helping to get the word out!

Atkins: No, thank you! I think when people start grasping the magnitude of this project they’ll be grateful you came along and that International Publishers is working with you on this truly unique series.

The 3rd Floor—And Other Stories of the Portuguese Resistance

ORDER NOW FROM INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHERS


CONTRIBUTOR

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. C.J. Atkins es el editor gerente de 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.

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