‘Livro’ by José Luís Peixoto

My rating: 4 stars

Having read Livro by the Portuguese author José Luís Peixoto for the first time almost a decade ago, I was certain that I had forgotten many details about it. I was not expecting to have misremembered so much about the plot and the characters, though. While telling the story of Ilídio and Adelaide, Peixoto painted not only a convincing picture of the life in a small Portuguese village in the second half of the 20th century, but also touched on issues related to the political repression of those who criticised Salazar, the colonial war, and the Portuguese migration to France.

In 1948, Ilídio, one of the main characters, was merely six years old. To his surprise, his mother gave him a book as they were walking around the village. Although he couldn’t figure out the reason why, his attention quickly turned to something else. While he was giving free rein to his imagination, his mother left him by himself next to a fountain with just a bag and the book. He waited for hours for her to return, but she never did. On the following morning, Josué, the mason of the village, arrived to pick him up and took him to his home, where he then grew up.

When he was 15, Ilídio asked Adelaide, the niece of one of the most well-known inhabitants of the village, Lubélia, to be his girlfriend. She said yes. As a thank you, he offered her 100 escudos, a pigeon and the book that his mother had given him before disappearing. Around seven years later, Ilídio went to Lubélia’s house seeking permission to marry Adelaide. The old woman started laughing nonstop.

The future will take various of the characters to France, mirroring what happened in real life to many Portuguese in the 1960s. Some endured the dangerous journey across Spain to avoid fighting in the bloody colonial war, a few went looking for a better life, others wanted to join the ones they loved.

The novel spans many decades, but it’s not very long, as it jumps quickly in time. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel disjointed. The majority of the scenes narrated from each given year are so detailed in terms of the characters’ movements and discussions that it seems that we are following them closely. The beginning of Ilídio and Adelaide’s relationship needed to be further explored for their subsequent misfortunes to be more impactful, however.

José Luís Peixoto created an interesting and convincing group of characters to inhabit the tiny Portuguese village that the story is partly set in. The barber, the priest, old Lubélia and Ilídio’s friends, Galopim and Cosme, help the novel feel realistic. Some of the feelings of the characters are also poignantly conveyed. The desperation that Ilídio felt when left alone near the fountain when he was a child is powerfully described. Josué grew very close to Ilídio, being almost a father to him, and was distraught when he left to France. His sadness is believably, visually and lyrically expressed.

The book comprises two parts. The second has a significantly different style from the first, which is fitting considering the turn that the book takes. It also shows the range of Peixoto’s writing style. If the first part of the book is a portrayal of a time in Portuguese history, the second is also a homage to literature. The name of one of the characters is not the only reason why this novel is called Livro (book in Portuguese).

Although I didn’t enjoy Livro as much as the first time I read it, it remains my favourite book by José Luís Peixoto so far.

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