My rating: 2 stars
The fundamental thing to know about Os Memoráveis by the Portuguese writer Lídia Jorge is that in its essence it really isn’t a book about the events that took place on 25 April 1974, the day that marked the end of four decades of dictatorship in Portugal, despite them being mentioned throughout. This novel is most of all an account of how people perceive their past and struggle to adapt to present-day life.
Ana Maria Machado is a Portuguese reporter living in Washington. At the end of 2003, she was invited to the house of the ambassador who was the official envoy of the US in Portugal in 1975 and was compelled to work on a documentary about the revolution that had taken place almost 30 years before. While they were discussing how impressive it was that it ended up being a peaceful revolution, she pretended not to remember neither the name of the flower which became the symbol of the insurrection nor of the song that served as the signal for the start of the military operation. She was reluctant to accept to take part in the project, as apparently there were some unsolved family issues she didn’t want to face.
However, after reading several old letters kept by the ambassador, she became more interested in that story of the country she had left behind and accepted to work on the documentary, which was going to be supervised by Bob Peterson, the ambassador’s godson. She thus returned to Portugal and asked two of her former university colleagues for assistance.
Their preparatory work was based on a photograph kept by Ana’s father. In it some of the people who had architected and taken part in the coup could be seen at a restaurant with her parents. Her father worked for a newspaper at the time and personally knew some of the people involved. So, at their house they always used their nicknames, instead of their proper names, and, to my great confusion, that is replicated throughout the book.
The plot develops through two different, but intertwined, strands: the interviews with the people who could be seen in the photograph and were involved in the revolution; and the family’s tribulations of the main character. The book is narrated in the first person by Ana Maria, and it’s interesting how often she speaks about her father using both his first and last name, António Machado. The same happens with her mother, Rosie Honoré, a Belgian who had travelled to Portugal months after the revolution and ended up staying more time than she had expected.
One of the people interviewed was known by the nickname ‘Oficial de Bronze’ (‘Bronze Officer’). He mentioned how, at first, all of the five thousand soldiers swore they wanted to remain anonymous, but then not all of them kept that vow. As some decided to take credit for their actions, he assumed the role of collector of information, so that all of those who were involved could be identified. He believed that he benefited from the revolution, as every other Portuguese, because he started living his life in freedom.
But not all of those interviewed had such a common-sense approach. Salamiza, for example, spoke about wanting to engage in another coup, without seeming to realise that taking part in one to end a dictatorship is not the same as to do so while living in democracy, even when not agreeing with the elected government or not being happy with the current situation of the country.
Ana Maria perceived a feeling of disappointment about the present in almost all of the interviewees. She explains it with the fact that, after a period of boundless and ambitious dreams, they were deemed to be disappointed by having to carry on living a normal life, albeit this time in democracy. Her father was also struggling to adapt to the novelties of his profession.
At first, I was enjoying the book, but not even mid-way through I became really bored to the point of having to skim-read the final three chapters. All the moaning by the characters who were being interviewed got on my nerves. There was not enough background information to contextualise past events and opinions. So, sometimes it was difficult for me to understand what was precisely being talked about. Also, what initially seemed to be a great family mystery ended up being just an increasingly more common occurrence, except that neither Ana nor her father managed to deal with it successfully.
Somewhere at the beginning of the novel it’s mentioned that young people don’t know enough about the revolution, despite it being an important time in history. But a book like this won’t solve that problem in my opinion, since it is full of resentful characters, who were based on real people. It would have been better just to have flashbacks, instead of having characters talking about past events in the present. Os Memoráveis (I don’t think there is a translation into English yet) features some instances of well-crafted prose, but it definitely wasn’t a book for me.