Mário-Henrique Leiria

the Portuguese author Mario-Henrique Leiria

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)


cover of Contos do Gin-Tonic by Mário-Henrique Leiria


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.


More Information

  • Contos do Gin-Tonic was featured in our Portugese Reading Group for Autumn 2011
  • Jethro Soutar’s sample translation [download id=”39″] is available to download for free.
  • If you’ve read the book or translated extract, let us know what you think by commenting below.


  1. mariella says:

    a wonderful writer with a light touch. love the elephant story. silly but also angry. great translations.

  2. rachael says:

    Finally a writer with some humour and wisdom. I think people in Britain would love to hear about Operation Parrot.

  3. Cassie Stafford says:

    I would like to read more of this. Has he written a novel? Did he write a memoir of the parrot operation and the other activities of the group?

  4. alexandra says:

    : pure mischief! & as delicious – and serious – as a gin-and-tonic, with no tonic, of course. Would love to read more from this author, explorer in writing and in living, and always political: que achado, parabéns! And the old Portuguese “sebista”, what flair he showed knowing at once that this book would please the young English translator…great stories.

  5. The Devil's Deal says:

    Great writing/translating – ‘a smile like frozen amonia’ is simile of the week round here.

    One request – howabout a glossary of untranslated words – nesepera, for example

  6. J kelly says:

    Gentle but with an edge.

    I must say, as someone who found their own lump on their ear, traipsed off to the doctor only to have her squeeze it and explain it was a spot – I can identify with The Wart. Mine didn’t start a revolution either.

  7. Jojo says:

    What a gem! I’m definitely going to try and find some more by this author, hopefully translated by the same person. Definitely worth a read.

  8. Elisabeth says:

    Whimsical and surreal. Made me laugh out loud! Great translation.

  9. morag macinnes says:

    I love this sample, it’s mischevious and elegant at the same time, clever translation

  10. Lucy says:

    What a joy to read! The charming and pithy humour reminds me of Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso’s stories.

  11. Timo says:

    A great intro to orient the reader and some beutifully rendered translations. Thank you for introducing him to those of us who don’t read portuguese! I’ll await a biographical essay + further translations !!!

  12. Elanor says:

    This writing is wonderful, and I feel very lucky to have been able to read it in such a deft translation. It is magical: capricious yet wise, light and dark, it tugs at my heart at unexpected moments. It draws on so many things, hints at heritages, but is unique, and exciting.

  13. Ruth says:

    Some great little stories there and the translation works very well.

  14. Jethro says:

    Thanks to everyone for all the comments – glad Leiria has charmed and amused.

    In response to The Devil, ‘nêspera’ proved a tricky one to translate: it is a fruit which we have no real name for in English; it’s also one of Leiria’s favourite words and crops up in most of his stories.

    One of his best-known poems is Rifão Quotidiano (Daily Proverb), which goes something like this: A nêspera / was on the bed / stretched out / all quiet / waiting to see / what would happen.
    The Old Lady came / and said / look, a nêspera / and wham, ate it.
    That’s what happens / to nêsperas / who lie stretched out / quietly / waiting to see / what happens

    Mário Viega, a Portuguese comedian, performed many of Leiria’s poems on stage and television. Here is his rendition of Daily Proverb:


  15. Yasmin Khan says:

    “He avoided the Balkans as he was afraid of them, having been told that the moustaches there were enormous” – haha classic! Have spent the last 30 mins wondering about what the wart in the wart poem looked like and what it represented. Surreal and very funny stuff. More please!

  16. Fantastic! I love how brilliantly surreal & sinister it all is. And the Daily Proverb is terrifying. I’d love to read more…

  17. Victor says:

    Very good and darkly funny. I’ve read the book in portuguese and I think the english version captures the whole surrealistic mood of Leiria’s writing. Very good.

  18. Emily says:

    Very chilling, in a “this is normal, so let’s live with it kind of way”. Beautiful translations which manage to capture a sense of the original poetry in the English. I was particularly touched by the elephant on the balcony. I assumed it was a short allegory for life was like under a dictator, but it could equally serve for anything swept under the carpet. So English, yet, clearly so Portuguese, too. The Elephant in the room is simply a human coping strategy.

  19. Mário-Hewnrique did not write a long novel, Contos do Gin Tónico and Novos Contos do Gin Tónico were written after his return from Brasil, with many very broken vertebrae and other joints, but he wrote a marvelous collection of letters (to me…the “Maruska of his Volga” which were published under the title “Depoimentos Escritos” – Isabel Turner. A literary critic wrote at the time that as far as Letters are concerned, Mário-Henrique’s letters are the best written in Portuguese and forget …”Letters from a Portuguese Nun”.

    Nespera — in English is “meddler a mediterranea fruit best eaten when half rotten.


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