It is perhaps the particularities of Nuno Bragança’s personal history that have provided material for his writing. His novels are unique testimonies to a unique time in Portuguese history and to a generation responsible for the country’s cultural reconstruction. His exile in Paris, his diplomatic work and his clandestine revolutionary activities against the Salazar dictatorship, marked both his life and work, which was also heavily influenced by the fact that he came from an aristocratic family.
His first literary texts were published while he was completing his degree in Law and can be seen as somewhat eccentric and baroque, heavily influenced by Existentialism, Surrealism, North American literature, English modernist poetry and the nouveau-roman. He also brought together the world of literature with that of cinema by collaborating on various projects, including one of Portuguese Cinema’s pioneering films, Os Verdes Anos [The Green Years] (1963). The violence and grotesque humour in his writing may remind readers of the Portuguese painter Paula Rego on occasion.
1969 saw the publication of his first and most emblematic novel – A Noite e o Riso, one of the most original and innovative of the anti-Salazarist novels, a novel that marked a real spirit of renewal in the literature of the time. He died unexpectedly in 1985 but his legacy for Portuguese literature has endured until today. Both José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes can be said to have been influenced by his writing.
A Noite E O Riso
At the time of its publication in 1969, Nuno Bragança’s Night and Laughter was a novelty in the world of Portuguese literature. In it, Bragança delves into the aristocracy and into Lisbon nights, as well as the lives of its outcasts. In three parts, the novel’s first section depicts an aristocratic childhood and is told from the point of view of a five-year-old. In the second, the reader follows Zana and Luísa in a series of fragmented texts, leading us along neither linear nor circular pathways through their lives. Finally, in the increasingly fragmented third section the reader is taken through a series of short narratives, descriptions and experiences that encapsulate nuggets of wisdom and knowledge about life and the act of writing. Night and Laughter is laughter in the face of life’s absurdity; it is one of Portugal’s most eloquent anti-Salazarist novels, which marked a moment of true revival in Portuguese literature.
This decisive novel marks an important moment in mid-century Portuguese literature. At war with the so-called overseas provinces (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea) for almost a decade, suffering continuous international pressure from both the NATO and the Soviet Bloc from the late 1950s onwards, Salazar’s regime is weakened. Internally, the clandestine opposition then took advantage of a more relaxed censorship to publish more openly critic works.
The experimental nature of the writing in A Noite e o Riso not only reinforces the anti-Salazarist stance by defying formal structural conventions, but also does so in terms of its content, by portraying a decadent society through the life of an aristocrat embedded in old values and traditions. Other examples of that kind of work from the same period would be José Cardoso Pires’s O Delfim (1968), the poetry of Jorge de Sena or the theatre of Luís de Sttau Monteiro. Despite their roots in neo-realism, they had a more grounded, social realist, yet heavily symbolic and combative, approach to the Portuguese novelistic tradition.
- This title features as part of our spring 2014 Portuguese reading group.