In his own words from the author’s biography in Gin and Tonic Tales:
‘Mário-Henrique Leiria was born in Lisbon in 1923. He went to the Escola de Belas Artes, and left rather hastily. Between 1949 and 1951 he was part of the Portuguese surrealist movement. Then he started to wander around from one place to another … He avoided the Balkans as he was afraid of them, having been told that the moustaches there were enormous and that bombs went off even in your pockets. Until one day he had to go there. The moustaches really were large but everyone knew how to laugh. He took off his coat and drank his fill. In 1958 he got the idea in his head that he’d go to England and learn things. He learned nothing and came back. In 1961 he went to Latin America … While there he managed to be, amongst other less respectable things, an organiser of exhibition stands, a theatre director and even the literary editor of a publishing house. He was moving up in the world. Now he’s fed up. He lives in Carcavelos and finds it very hard to walk.
This is his first book published in Portugal. He really is extremely fed up.’
Leiria left Portugal for Brazil after being arrested as the orchestrator of an audacious plot to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship. Operation Parrot, as it was called, involved Leiria and his fellow surrealist poets hijacking a radio station and playing a series of fake news bulletins informing the public that an army uprising had taken place and the rebel troops were marching on Lisbon. The final bulletin would proclaim the return of democracy and encourage the masses to head to town squares in celebration. The scheme was based on Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast and hoped that listeners would believe their ears and take to the streets in revolutionary fervour – the fictional news becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The surrealist poets were arrested before they could put their plan into action. The plot was, much like its inventor, at once absurd and deadly serious. It was built on radicalism and a belief in the power and magic of storytelling. The spirit of the venture lives on in these poems and stories: audacious, madcap, defiant and daring.
The first book, Contos do Gin-Tonic (Gin and Tonic Tales), was published in 1973; More Gin Tales (Novos Contos do Gin) followed in early 1974. The timing is significant: António Salazar died in 1970 and, though the dictatorship didn’t fall until 1974, censorship weakened following Salazar’s death, at least sufficiently enough for Leiria to publish his books. However, they didn’t find a readership until the Carnation Revolution in April 1974, his irreverence and rebelliousness suddenly resonating with the young revolutionaries, who adopted the books as a literature that captured the mood on the street. He published a further four works and edited journals and anthologies, until his death in 1980.
Featured Reading Group Title
Contos do Gin-Tonic (Gin and Tonic Tales)
Gin and Tonic Tales is an eclectic collection of poems and stories, specifically 46 shorts and 12 poems, plus one drawing with a caption. The shorts range in length from 5 lines to 10 pages.
Leiria gives us warts that endanger world order; talking gin bottles; elephants that appear and disappear on balconies; aliens; goats that are robbed of the presidency along with goats that are appointed governor. A man becomes the general’s body double but must disguise himself as an ice-cream salesman while another double doubles for him.
But though some of the pleasure derived by a Portuguese revolutionary in the 1970s would be lost on an 21st century Anglo-Saxon reader, its spirit and charm is timeless and most of the stories, themes, and settings are universal.
- Contos do Gin-Tonic was featured in our Portugese Reading Group for Autumn 2011
- Jethro Soutar’s sample translation from Gin and Tonic Tales by Mário-Henrique Leiria (289) is available to download for free.
- If you’ve read the book or translated extract, let us know what you think by commenting below.