‘Contos Exemplares’ by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

My rating: 4 stars

The collection of short stories Contos Exemplares (Exemplary Tales in the English translation) was published for the first time in the 60’s and that is quite noticeable in various of the seven tales. Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, a renowned Portuguese poet, wrote these stories mainly focusing on poverty, suffering, and what would need to be changed in order to achieve a fairer society.

In the first short story in this collection, ‘O Jantar do Bispo’, we are introduced to the owner of a great property. He wants to get rid of the new priest of the parish, who speaks about the misery of the poor, as they work all day for meagre wages. In order to achieve his purpose, he is counting on the bishop to support him. Through a compelling prose, this story touches on the issues of poverty, worker’s rights, freedom, democracy and the hypocrisy of some members of the Catholic Church.

Poverty and suffering are, in fact, recurring themes in this collection. They are clearly present in ‘O Homem’ but also in ‘Os Três Reis do Oriente’, a story about the Three Wise Men taking place before the birth of Jesus. They are trying to seek the truth and looking for a better God, who would not only protect the rich but the oppressed. There are also mentions to poetry, what is fitting since some sentences have quite a lyrical sound.

The fact that these short stories were written when Portugal lived under a dictatorship is particularly relevant in ‘Retrato de Mónica’. This story focuses on the promotion of futility and stupidity to help support the power of a dictator. There is a humorous tone throughout it, which I particularly enjoyed.

There is also an important presence of natural elements in two of the stories. In ‘Homero’ natural elements are recurrently personified, while in ‘A Viagem’ a couple is trying to reach a destination they see as the perfect place. I understood it as a metaphor for the life as a journey. During our path we lose things, so we turn back before carrying on and trying to find new ways to solve our problems. However, the actions of the characters felt too repetitive and this was the only story I didn’t like that much.

As with every short story collection I’ve read, some stories are more memorable than others. But Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen managed to interestingly shine a light on important topics at a time when it was quite dangerous to do so.

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