‘O Homem Duplicado’ (‘The Double’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

José Saramago really knew how to play with words and convey a socially relevant message without overlooking the plot. O Homem Duplicado, The Double in the English translation, is mainly a book about the human condition, in the sense that delves into how people want to feel like they are unique and so struggle to come to terms with being equal to others and not particularly original.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, the main character in this novel, is quite a peculiarly named History teacher at a secondary school in an unidentified city. He has been suffering from depression, since he got divorced and started to live alone. One of his colleagues, a Mathematics teacher, advises him to watch some films, so he can get distracted from his troubles. He takes his colleague advice and goes to a store to rent a VHS tape.

After watching the film that was recommended to him, he realises that the actor who played the short role of a hotel receptionist looks a lot like him, despite having a moustache and a different hairstyle. He then remembers that the film was actually released five years before and goes looking for a photograph of himself from that period. When he finds one, he sees that at the time he also had a moustache and the same haircut as the actor. The two of them look exactly the same after all. This discovery affects Tertuliano Máximo Afonso profoundly, although deep down he knows it is nonsensical to feel that way. Continue reading


‘The New Sorrows of Young W.’ by Ulrich Plenzdorf

My rating: 3 stars

The New Sorrows of Young W. by the German writer Ulrich Plenzdorf has the particularity of being narrated by a dead teenager, who takes the opportunity to recall the ultimate months of his short life. Since we know from the outset that Edgar Wibeau died on a 24th of December, the interest of this novel lies in discovering more about the events preceding his death, which was caused by an accident involving electricity.

The book has quite an interesting structure. Edgar’s father is trying to understand what happened to his son, whom he didn’t see for many years. So, we are presented with his conversations with various people, the first of them being Edgar’s mother. These exchanges are interrupted by Edgar who, after his death, comments on what they are saying, offering further explanations and correcting them when they’re wrong, although only the readers can hear him.

We learn that Edgar had been an apprentice at a factory, but he quitted and ran away from home. He went to Berlin at first to apply to an arts school. Despite being turned down, he remained in the city. He didn’t contact his mother but sent some recorded tapes with citations from a book (The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) to his friend Willi. Continue reading

‘The Tobacconist’ by Robert Seethaler

My rating: 4 stars

I have read a few books set around the time of the rise of Nazism in Europe and the Second World War in the latest years. Nevertheless, The Tobacconist by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler still managed to surprise me, because it mixes the growing of hatred in politics with a story about sexual awakening and the state of bewilderment caused by falling in love for the first time.

In the summer of 1937, Franz Huchel lived with his mother in the village of Nussdorf am Attersee. They could afford to live in a cottage near the lake, since she was in some sort of relationship with Alois Preininger, a rich man from that area, and every month he gave her a sum of money. But, when Preininger died, Franz was forced to accept to go work for a tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek, in Vienna.

At his establishment, Otto sold newspapers, stationery and tobacco products. He believed that the secret of a good tobacconist was to read all the newspapers every day, and to understand the aroma, the scent and the taste of cigars. The main problem of the cigar business, according to him, was politics. His assessment of the situation of that time could also be unfortunately applied to present day. Continue reading

‘The Life of Hunger’ by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 4 stars

Amélie Nothomb is not merely the author of The Life of Hunger, she is also its narrator and main character. Nevertheless, this is not a non-fiction book. It is a fictional memoir which introduces a girl and a young woman permanently hungry, not only for food but for almost everything life can provide. As the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, she experienced various forms of hunger in different cities – Japan, Peking, New York, Bangladesh.

At the beginning of the book, Amélie remembers the moment when she received a parcel from a gentleman national of Vanuatu, a small and remote island, where the population has never known hunger. They’ve always had plenty of natural resources, more than enough for the short number of inhabitants. In this context, she defends that in the West we have the habit of overeating, because we see hunger in the streets. Also, we have a “keen” appetite, as we work in order to have money to buy things.

But the hunger Nothomb writes about is also connected with the aspiration of constantly having something present, and with the endless existence of something to do and to pursue. Since she was really young, she has always wanted more from games, books, toys, stories. She aspired to infinity, including from sugary things, although her mother tried to thwart her. Continue reading

‘Instante’ (‘Moment’) by Wislawa Szymborska

My rating: 3 stars

Instante (Moment) by Wislawa Szymborska was the book I chose to represent Poland at the ‘EU still 28’ reading project. I believe this was my first time reading a poetry collection which was not originally written in Portuguese but translated into it. So, I’m not entirely certain if my misgivings in relation to some of these poems are due to the translation or to Szymborska’s writing style.

Being faithful to the title of the collection, various poems seem to have been inspired by moments and snippets from people’s lives. These moments, conveyed through a rather direct style, are comprised of both casual daily life occurrences and highly significant events. For example, ‘Fotografia de 11 de Setembro’ (‘Photograph from September 11’) focuses on the moment when people started to jump from the towers of the World Trade Centre complex following the terrorist attack in 2001.

Time is another recurring element in this collection. ‘As Três Palavras Mais Estranhas’ (‘The Three Oddest Words’) uses the word ‘future’ to demonstrate how time is inescapably brief. After all, before we finish saying ‘future’, the first syllable is already in the past. Continue reading

‘The King’s General’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

The King’s General was the third book I read by Daphne du Maurier, following the magnificent Rebecca and the enigmatic My Cousin Rachel. So, I could not help but compare it with the other two while reading. It feels quite different, not being either as atmospheric or as mysterious. Both characteristics are still present, they are just not as prevalent as I had anticipated before starting to delve into the pages of this historical novel about pride, love, war, betrayal and acceptance.

In 1653, Honor Harris, the narrator of this story, muses about previous life events and decides to write about them so that people understand why she loved Richard Grenvile despite all his faults. As with the other books I’ve read by Daphne du Maurier, the first chapter is utterly intriguing, attention-grabbing, and deserves to be reread after finishing the novel.

Honor takes us 30 years back in time to the moment when her oldest brother Kit returned home to Lanrest newlywed to Gartred, a young woman from a really important family – the Grenviles. Honor was 10 years old back then, and until that occasion had assumed that people married for love. Continue reading

‘A Sibila’ by Agustina Bessa-Luís

My rating: 2 stars

I made the decision to read a book by Agustina Bessa-Luís some time ago while searching for Portuguese authors to add to my list of 100 Women Writers to Read in my Lifetime. The short articles I read portrayed her as a prodigious writer, and A Sibila was said to be her best book. However, after forcing myself to finish this novel, I really can’t understand the reason why she is so revered.

The first characters to be introduced to the readers are Germana and Bernardo Sanches. They are gazing at an old house, and, without paying much attention to what Bernardo is saying, Germa starts talking about Quina, whose real name was Joaquina Augusta. She was the second daughter of Maria da Encarnação and Francisco Teixeira, and is the main character in this novel.

Quina wasn’t beautiful and didn’t mind lying when she saw necessary. Generally speaking, she didn’t like other women. She scorned being part of a group of girls who had to be submissive and whose best hope was to marry. However, this topic is never fully developed. Her personality is, most of the times, straightforwardly enumerated by the narrator, no examples being given of specific actions or situations that would explain why she was being characterised in a certain way. Quina changes when a new person enters in her life later on in the book. At that moment, it feels like the story is finally going to become interesting, but it doesn’t. Continue reading

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

While reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood I felt almost like a detective searching for clues that could shed some light on the role of the main character, Grace Marks, in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper. This book is based on a true story, and I became rather intrigued by it while reading the fairly mysterious first chapter.

The narration of the book starts in 1851, when Grace is 24 years old. She has been in jail for eight years, since she was found guilty together with James McDermott of the two murders. While James was hanged, she is serving a life sentence at a penitentiary in Canada. They both worked at Thomas Kinnear’s house, Grace as a serving maid and James as a stable hand.

One day in 1859 she is at the parlour of the Governor’s wife, where she spends some time helping with the chores, when a doctor arrives with the aim of measuring her head. However, as he approaches, she starts screaming and is afterwards taken to solitary confinement. While there, she receives a visit from another doctor, Simon Jordan, who wants to hear everything she has to say, since he focuses on the “diseases of the mind and brain, and the nerves”. Continue reading

‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

My rating: 4 stars

Hannah Kent takes the reader to a world full of superstition, rituals and folklore in The Good People. The story being told focuses on how some individuals struggle to accept those who are perceived as abnormal, and end up allowing pagan superstitions to guide their actions, as there is a lack of scientific knowledge, which possibly would have enlightened their search for answers.

The year is 1825. In rural Ireland, Nóra’s husband collapsed and died while digging ditches. This was the second death in her family in a short period of time. Her daughter, Johanna, had died a few months before, and, from then on, her four-year-old son, Micheál, had been living with Nóra. He couldn’t speak nor talk since his mother had fallen ill, and was also extremely skinny and underdeveloped for his age. Nóra kept trying to hide Micheál from the preying eyes of her neighbours to avoid gossip about his condition. People believed him to be a changeling, a fairy.

When neighbours and family members gather at Nóra’s cabin to pay their respects after her husband’s death, we have a first glimpse of a world full of rituals and superstition. Nance was among those who went to the cabin to take part in the keening, a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead. She was a kind of handy woman, who some people believed dealt with the fairies. The town’s inhabitants resorted to her to solve health issues, for aid when delivering babies and when people died. Continue reading

‘Os Memoráveis’ by Lídia Jorge

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 to start 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. Continue reading