Thirteen stories of clandestine journeys in the service of Portuguese freedom – People’s World


Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, at Dimitroffstrasse underground station. Joachim F. Thurn, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

These thirteen stories of clandestine journeys in the service of world socialism reveal the risks and rewards of “clandestine labor,” a branch of Party activity which, as the author reminds us, was fundamental to the liberation struggle of the XXth century. Appearing for the first time in English, the stories represent the final stage of Eric Gordon’s ongoing and valuable translation project, which will eventually render the complete work of Manuel Tiago – nine volumes of fiction (compressed to eight in translation) accessible to the English-speaking world. .

Manual Tiago was the pseudonym of Álvaro Cunhal, a Portuguese anti-fascist revolutionary, born in 1913, who joined the Communist Party at the age of eighteen in 1931, traveled to Moscow for the Sixth International Congress of youth in 1935, and never looked back. Cunhal spent most of the 1940s living cautiously on the fringes as a Portuguese CP de facto undercover leader. Arrested in 1949, he endured eleven years in prison before escaping to the Soviet Union in 1960.

Elected as Secretary General of the Partido Comunista Português in 1961, Cunhal served in exile for thirteen years because the Party was banned at home. It was not until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that he was able to return permanently to his native country, where he held the position of General Secretary for another eighteen years.

Unsurprisingly, some of the stories of Border crossings are autobiographical, covering a period that coincides with the author’s own clandestine travels. As the translator’s introduction tells us, “The Hold”, a story of stifling confinement and sensory deprivation in the dark recesses of a Yugoslav ocean liner, is likely based on a voyage Cunhal made in 1947.

The practical purpose of this trip had been to restore relations between the Portuguese Communists and the international movement. What the story reveals and adds to the record is a realistic sense of how the political is also the personal. Hungry, cold and alone in the depths of the ship, awaiting the end of his “torture of darkness and silence”, Comrade Carlos is totally dependent on others. He has no choice but to keep the faith.

Another claustral story, “The Whaleboat and the Cuddy”, confirms a set of situations that recall Edgar Allan Poe’s stories of confinement and terror. “It was as if he had been locked in a coffin for endless hours,” comrade Saul recounts in Tiago’s story. The suffering of man is painful to read, and that is the point. But even in his most intense and desperate moments, Saul is only half dead, awaiting spiritual resurrection and recommitment. Like at Richard Wright The Man Who Lived Undergroundfugitive travel offers a glimpse of the aerial world.

Border crossings is candid about the pressures and risks of revolutionary activity, but it’s also a book of lively oddities and unexpected twists. In one story, Abel and Francisco are lost and nearly starving on an arduous trek through the Pyrenees. Suddenly and inexplicably, they pass cows in a pasture and, more surprisingly, “buckets full of milk, overflowing with frothy white bubbles”. With no one around, they fall to their knees in front of the buckets and drink their fill. “Marvellous!” Abel says, forgetting that “since he was little he never liked the taste of milk”.

That evening, having reached the next stage of their crossing and a refuge, the men undress to take baths. They feel tiny bites and notice “healthy colonies of ticks…round like little white berries” on their backs and abdomens. They remember that the previous night they had slept on the ground, keeping warm under piles of dry leaves. “It’s amazing that we didn’t notice anything,” says Abel. Francisco replies, “I felt something, but I thought it was the leaves.” Humorous subtleties can be difficult to translate across culture and language, but Gordon is right.

There are also stylistic nuggets, passages that intrigue and resonate. Not all translators skillfully handle the nuances and rhythms of landscape-inspired description. This one is seen through the eyes of Abel and Francisco in “Le col des Pyrénées”:

Far below, stretching north as far as the eye could see, was a patchwork of lights and colors, fields, groves of trees and farms testifying to the intensity of human life. To the west, as far as the eye could take you, to the long line of the horizon with the sky, stretched the immense shimmering band of the ocean.

In “Spain Lies in the East”, Alfredo volunteers to accompany Barra, a fugitive from the Portuguese fascist regime, on a dangerous passage to a safe harbor within Republican Spain. Alfredo is an ardent but inexperienced comrade, and Barra must teach him even the essential skill of finding the North Star. It is not until he returns to Portugal that Alfredo realizes how close he had been to apprehension or worse. “In deep thought”, he weighs his risk-taking and questions his wisdom, but does not let himself be discouraged:

As he mulled over these lines as he walked home, letting his imagination run wild, he imagined himself at night in the fields looking up at the starry sky and orienting himself as Barra had taught him.

In this volume we learn not only about celestial navigation, but about the methods by which comrades recognize each other in public places, and how some of them escape from fascist prisons. Always, we are warned, memorize every detail of your fake passport information, including the actual geographic location of your fake hometown.

This is, after all, the lesson learned by young Vito in “By Train Through Nazi Germany.” Vito is a fine observer of detail who has “the gift of getting out of any situation”. But traversing Nazi Germany with the Gestapo watching and “preparing to intervene” is serious business. Vito makes several mistakes, including the potentially fatal mistake of declaring that his alleged birthplace, Nantes, is on the Mediterranean coast, before realizing “how real the dangers of his journey were” and acknowledging it as an experience of imminent death.

Gordon’s translation of “Women Over the Soajo” was broadcast on Pacifica radio and made available for listening. The plot involves Berta and Manuela, two Portuguese communists stuck in a nice hotel awaiting instructions for their return home. Outwardly, they exhibit bourgeois demeanor, browsing shops and enjoying meals and amenities as if they were “two single women living off their rental incomes”. When they meet a male fellow in a dour mood, they ask him out and share their contagious exuberance, receiving the man’s compliments and a gift in return.

Seemingly foreign to misery, the women are unprepared for the arduous next leg of the journey, a climb up the rocky and steep mountain of Soajo. But despite the sexist insults of their male guide, they show courage. Even limping to their destination with bleeding feet, they also retain their fiery revolutionary momentum.

Tiago’s decision to structure a collection of stories around the perils, vicissitudes, wonders and rewards of border crossing is original and ingenious, a credit to the author’s individual artistic vision. But as the translator Eric Gordon points out in his introduction to Border crossings, “A theme that recurs story after story here is that of communication, cooperation and collaboration. No one makes these trips alone. It is clear that Tiago and Gordon his collaborator are driven by the culture of crossing borders, the simple solidarity of the brothers and sisters of the movement, underground and therefore largely unknown.

As rendered in Gordon’s translation, Tiago’s prose at times recalls Hemingway’s minimalist, modernist style of prose. So it’s only fitting that in the last story of the book, less is more. “It Was Nothing – A Vacation” is an ultra-short piece of flash fiction with a clipped, tongue-in-cheek outcome. The magnitude of his irony is a cumulative product of the previous twelve stories.

Fernando and Regina, two activists who are also parents of a four-year-old child, accept a mission of several years in a distant country. Getting there will be an ordeal, so they ask another couple – schoolmates – to separately drive their daughter to Paris by car, pretending the girl is theirs. The parents endure “a lot of pain” in their crossing but say nothing to the child and are joyfully relieved to be reunited. Someone asks the little girl, whose journey has been a happy and carefree time, “what does a clandestine border crossing look like”. His response, “It’s nothing – a vacation”, is heard, believed and repeated by many.

Border crossings is a work of unique concept and intelligent prose, richly translated. It is both engaging and revealing for its depiction of an important but little-known area of ​​political activity.

Manuel Tiago
Border crossings
Translated by Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2021.
130 pages, $19.99 (paperback)
ISBN: 9780717808731
Order from international publishers.

Photo: Friedrichstrasse station, Berlin, 1932 (FOTO: Fortepan ID 28605, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)


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