|Inês Pedrosa, photo by Alfredo Cunha|
Q: Your novel was first published two decades ago and is now appearing in English for the first time. How did the English translation come about, and what do you hope English-speaking readers take away from the book?
A: My agent Thomas Colchie began working with me exactly 20 years ago because of this novel, which he fell in love with, eventually managing to get Gabriella Page-Fort at Amazon Crossing to read it in a Spanish translation. And happily her reaction was enthusiastic.
The American translation by Andrea Rosenberg turned out to be excellent, and I hope that English-language readers around the world will embrace the novel, a meditation on the evolving nature of intimacy between several men and women throughout the 20th century.
For non-Portuguese readers, the book may also prove enlightening because of its glimpses of my country's pivotal history in the context of its little known but often crucial role in world events of the period. By maintaining its neutrality under the Salazar dictatorship during World War II, Portugal became a strategic location in Europe and an escape route for refugees fleeing the Nazi advance.
Later, during the ‘60s, still under the same dictatorship, the African colonial wars unfolded in Portugal's colonial possessions, including Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, wars that led to the 25th of April Revolution of 1974, also known as the Carnation Revolution, which ended Portugal's long dictatorship and led to the independence of its African colonies.
I think that good literature always manages to surpass the frontiers of the language in which it is written, because it is always about universal themes.
Q: You write that the novel was inspired by a couple you learned about. How did their story lead to the creation of this novel?
A: A friend told me the story of a distant relative of hers who had died alone and senile. After becoming a widow, she had told her nephews that she planned to marry her deceased husband's best friend, who had always lived with the couple since their marriage, because if she and the friend had continued to live together under the same roof after her husband's death, that might be frowned upon.
She confided to the nephews that, in fact, her husband had been a homosexual all his life and more importantly the lover of the other man, whom she had gradually come to regard as a brother. Fearful of losing their inheritance because of such a marriage, her relatives had her committed to a mental asylum in order to prevent the marriage.
This woman began to appear to me in dreams, old and disheveled, saying: "Don't feel sorry for me, I'm not some poor victim. I was happy in my way, even though it's not yours." It was this oneiric experience that led me to write the novel.
Q: The novel is divided into three sections, each told by a different woman. How did you come up with your three characters?
A: Initially, I was only going to tell the story of this first woman, but eventually, as I was writing the book, I realized that the theme of emancipation and the unfolding identity of the initial protagonist required a continuation, since evolving gender roles would become one of the most important achievements of the last century – a victory, in fact, that is still ongoing.
And I also wanted to incorporate into the novel a variety of registers to reflect the expanded range of expression in the arts of the period. That's the reason that Jenny writes in a diary; Camila, the photographer, writes texts to accompany her personal album of photographs; while Natália, the architect, writes letters to Jenny, her adoptive grandmother, who is the pillar upon whom she erects the architecture of her own life.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: No, I didn't know how the novel would end; I only knew that it shouldn't have a closed ending, because it should depict the continuity of life unfolding. Nor did I want it to be terribly sad, because I was sick of reading novels with overly dramatic endings; tragic outcomes seemed and still seem to me too hackneyed a solution, facile and artificial.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've just finished my eighth novel, the subject of which is passion, set in the decade of the ‘80s. a passion between a Portuguese high school teacher and her young teenage student of African descent.
The novel examines our ideas about maturity, childhood, seduction, age of consent and passion itself, as well as the underlying racism that persists within the discourse of tolerance.
The boy in question is the product of a brief affair between a Cape Verdean woman who has emigrated to Portugal and a Portuguese count who happens to be a cavaleiro, that is, a Portuguese bullfighter on horseback.
I particularly enjoyed investigating the world of Portuguese bullfighting, a polemical sport and a very ancient one with deep Iberian roots, which, to my surprise, has barely found expression in Portuguese literature.
The novel is also partially set in the world of journalism during the latter half of the ‘80s – a decade of yuppies, of economic optimism and unbridled consumerism, coupled with the growth of media sensationalism.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would only add, like Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, that I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between my Portuguese novels and my American readers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb
--Interview with Deborah Kalb