Unanimously considered one of the greatest Portuguese writers of the twentieth century, José Cardoso Pires is seen in some ways as the literary predecessor of José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes. Having published eighteen books throughout his career, his body of work does not fit any specific genre or literary tradition, even though his writing is somewhat connected to the Neo-Realist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A Marxist throughout his life, his opposition to the Portuguese dictatorship forced him into exile more than once. Born in 1925 in the village of Peso, near Castelo Branco, he died in Lisbon in 1998. O Delfim (The Dauphin) is one of his most important works.
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O Delfim (The Dauphin)
The story begins with the return of the Author, after a year’s absence, to Gafeira, a typical (and fictional) Portuguese village. As on his previous visit, the Author has come to do some wildfowl shooting.
On that earlier visit, the Author had met and grown to admire a man known variously as Tomás Manuel da Palma Bravo, the Engineer, the Dauphin and the Infante. He is the last descendant of the Palma Bravo family, a family that has dominated the village for centuries. Despite leading an entirely futile life mainly devoted to drinking and gambling, and paying no attention to the villagers whom he despises as if they were mere serfs, the Dauphin is still resentfully accepted as the ‘lord of the manor’.
When the Author returns to Gafeira a year later, he is immediately informed by gleeful locals of the mysterious deaths of the Dauphin’s wife and servant and of the Engineer’s equally mysterious disappearance. The novel charts the Author’s attempts to solve the crime through the conflicting testimonies of villagers and through his own memories of the previous year and the conversations he had with Tomás. In the end, he realises that he will never fully understand what happened; the ‘evidence’ he garners is merely a collection of fragmentary images obscured by uncertainty, imagination, memory and revenge. The truth of what happened will only ever be known by those who witnessed it – and even then…
The Dauphin was first published in 1968, when Salazar, Portugal’s long-term dictator, suffered a brain haemorrhage that left him paralysed. This existential detective novel paints a vivid portrait of the decadence and oppression that was rife under Salazar, and Cardoso Pires does this with elegance and wit, employing a myriad of different narrative techniques and writing styles. A neglected masterpiece.