José Cardoso Pires

José Cardoso Pires portrait

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.

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2 Comments

  1. The descriptions are visually engaging, and draw me into an active reading that creates this world in the imagination.

    Not everything is told: “many of them empty and some still equipped with the iron rings where animals were tethered in the old days. In the old days, in happier times”; and the narrative strategy itself is interesting, inventively played: “In the old days, fifty, maybe seventy years ago, the square must surely have been a market place”; and, “Next to it, if you’ll allow me, two Alsatian dogs, each tied to the escutcheon of the bumper;”.

    I enjoyed the evocative nature of this piece, which gives pleasure in the reading. Its note of mystery provokes interest and gives me something to carry in my mind as I read. It suggests a reward from the unfolding of a story that has some thought behind it. And the playfulness is harnessed firmly to the storyline, which is what draws the reading on.

    I’d certainly enjoy having a go at the full text.

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  2. Stefan Tobler says:

    It’s a really intriguing book! (I’m about a third of the way in.) It’s set on the cusp of the old and the new: there’s murder, intrigue and the end of the local gentry’s hold over the village. The villagers take over the hunting rights to the lake, a place that is the focus of mysterious rumours and conjecture. You could say mix of old Europe’s ways and new democratic impulses is mirrored in the narrator’s mix of colloquial asides to the reader and erudite references. The novel sometimes, but not always, is not far from what the narrator finds in the village history he reads by a local Abbot, whose prose he says is ‘patient, is something of an inventory of ruins and immobile things. A home comfort, just what the hunter needs to rest from Nature’ (chapter 3).

    While being very much a story-teller, the narrator at times makes brilliant poetic connections. The village has Roman ruins. A motionless lizard on the wall is a stone on the stone. Later, in chapter 6, the narrator talks to the leader of the village co-operative that has taken possession of the lake. He says this leader is looking out of his shop towards the wall where a lizard, immobile so long, might launch itself, suddenly alive, like the leader did ‘from the back of his shop to take possession of the lake’.

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