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Category Archive for 'Portugal'

On March 24, 1946, fifty-four-year-old world chess champion Alexandre Alekhine was found dead in his hotel room at the famed Hotel do Parque in Estoril, Portugal. He had been living there alone for two months during the off-season, first awaiting news of a worthy opponent and then awaiting the details regarding a future match. As Italian author Paolo Maurensig develops this story, Alekhine’s life in several different countries under several different governments begins to unfold, and the suspicious circumstances in which his body was found lead to the inescapable conclusion that this death may not have been an accident. Alekhine was fully dressed and wearing a heavy coat as he sat in his overheated room, apparently eating a meal, though he had attended a full dinner in his honor that same night. The journalist who reported on his death in the Portuguese press, Artur Portela, did so in the face of strong censorship and the influence of the secret police of long-time ruler Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which promptly ended the investigation, making no comment at all. The investigation by Portela, the journalist, provides author Maurensig with details of the case which he develops. Enjoyable as a picture of the times, whether or not you are a chess aficionado.

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“On October 27, 1949, at Orly, Air France’s F-BAZN is waiting to receive thirty-seven passengers departing for the United States…[including] Marcel Cerdan… former middleweight boxing champion… and the violin virtuoso Ginette Neveu…. The tabloid France-soir organizes an impromptu photo session in the departure lounge. In the first snapshot, Jean Neveu, Ginette’s brother [is] smiling at her, while Marcel holds her Stradivarius and Ginette grins across at him.” The plane takes off but never arrives in New York – nor does it arrive at the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, where the pilot had planned to refuel for the trip across the Atlantic. All thirty-eight passengers and eleven crew died when the plane crashed into a mountain top fifty-five miles from the airport at Santa Maria. French author Adrien Bosc wastes no time getting into the action of this book, which he calls a novel, though this “novel” is based on real life events and the historical record and feels more like a long piece of journalism or investigative reporting. There is almost no dialogue, something which even “fictionalized biographies” include, and the author interjects himself into the book and speaks directly to the reader, at times, when he is puzzled about the facts as he is uncovering them. Parts of the book feel like a quest story – in this case, the author’s quest for the complete truth about the crash and the fates of all the passengers. Certainly some of the “facts” here are extrapolations which the author himself makes from what he knows, and in that sense the book might qualify as a novel, but most readers will find themselves learning about the crash and its victims, rather than reliving it as one does in pure fiction.

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Lisbon, 1940, provides a temporary safe haven and hope for emigrating citizens from every country in Europe as they try to secure visas for passage by ship – any ship – out of Europe and away from the Nazis. For Americans with valid passports, life is more secure. The U.S. government has commandeered the S. S. Manhattan to transport stranded Americans in Lisbon back to New York. For these people, the biggest challenge is to pass the time till the ship sails, and many of them do it in extravagant fashion. A few, however, including characters here, have more difficulty leaving Europe, physically and emotionally, than one might expect. As one character notes, in retrospect, “Now it seems churlish to speak of our plight, which was nothing compared with that of real refugees – the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews. Yet at the time, we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.” Author David Leavitt, in describing life in Lisbon in these crucial weeks before war engulfs all of Europe, examines four characters – Americans awaiting the S. S. Manhattan – as they reveal their attitudes toward Europe, toward the United States, and ultimately toward each other. All in all, Leavitt creates an unusual treatment of a tension-filled time and place with characters whom he manipulates effectively to illustrate his themes. Ultimately, “there are occasions when none of the choices are good. You simply have to calculate which is the least bad.”

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Vincent Balmer’s decision to write a “novel” about Antonio Flores, with whom he works, results in an engaging story in which Vincent, a writer, talks about his writing, his troubled characters explore the present and share their unhappy pasts, his lovers fall in and out of love and fail to connect with the objects of their desire, and a confessed serial killer goes on trial, “half asleep in the dock, utterly silent, his eyes blank.” I put the word “novel” in quotation marks here because though the speaker’s “novel” contains all the ingredients which could make Antonio’s story an exciting best seller, author Herve Le Tellier himself deliberately rejects the traditions of the novel as it has been written for hundreds of years. As a member of the French literary group “Oulipo,” a “workshop of potential literature,” Le Tellier is dedicated to finding “new patterns and structures which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” As a result, he takes this novel in the many different directions which he fancies, leaving the reader to tag along for the ride. Vincent has recently returned to Lisbon from Paris following a failed love affair. A journalist, he is working with Antonio Flores, a photographer, covering the trial of a serial killer for a Paris magazine, a narrative which fades into the background when the speaker becomes more interested in writing the story of Antonio, the people they both know, their overlapping histories, and their real and imagined amours. Clever and full of fun (and games), Electrico W examines the themes of love and death with a good deal of honest emotion.

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In this high-temperature fever dream of a novel, with images that boil and explode with emotional intensity, author Antonio Lobo Antunes describes the life of a newly graduated Lisbon physician who has been sent to Angola from 1971 – 1973, during Portugal’s war to preserve its colonies. As the novel begins, six years have passed since the speaker has returned to Lisbon from Angola, but the young physician still cannot come to grips with all he saw and felt there. Furious by the betrayal of the Portuguese government, consisting of the ultra-right wing Estado Novo led for many years by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the speaker accuses that government of responsibility for all the African dead and all the Portuguese lost souls who had to fight that senseless war. After bedding a woman he has just met, he is suddenly impelled to talk about his experiences in Angola, and, once started, he cannot stop. The intensity of the feelings and images throughout this book belie the usual objectivity of a novelist. Like his speaker, the author, too, was a young physician when he was sent to perform military service in Angola from 1971 – 1973, and though this is considered a novel, it is obviously extremely autobiographical.

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