Olga Gonçalves

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Poetry was Olga Teixeira Gonçalves’ first love and she published half-a-dozen collections in the decade from 1973. A Floresta em Bremerhaven (The Forest in Bremerhaven, 1975) was her first novel on emigration, which was reprinted four times and won her the prestigious Ricardo Melheiros Prize in 1986. Gonçalves believed that the best means of telling the truth was through fiction, and that to compile History a historian had to understand the meaning of many different histories, or life stories.

Well aware of the New Waves in the cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, Gonçalves repeatedly references image and screen in her work. She said that ‘I write fiction the better to see reality’ and her whole approach was one of seeing and recording. She followed up her initial success with O Emigrante là-bas (The Emigrant Là-bas, 1978), concerning trans-Pyrenean emigration to France, before revisiting the Canary Isles and Angola, the land of her birth. Gonçalves endorsed a colleague’s estimation that her ‘books cannot be read between four walls, with an electric light bulb dangling from the ceiling. They have to be read out in the fresh air, right in the middle of the street.’ Her particular blend of fiction and real-life writing, verging both on oral literature and documentary cinema, deserves a wider audience.

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A Floresta em Bremerhaven (The Forest in Bremerhaven)

an illustration of A Floresta em Bremerhaven book jacket

Equally of and ahead of its time, A Floresta em Bremerhaven (The Forest in Bremerhaven, 1975) is a tale of emigration – of those Portuguese who, in the 1970s, left the rural for the industrial areas of Europe, for economic survival. It is told in a dozen different voices of people who returned, marked in many different ways, to the narrator who meets them in a coastal resort on the Algarve. Gonçalves’ particular technique of turning oral history (based on her own sociological interviews) into what she called contemporary History (with a capital H) gives her writing a freshness and originality. Even now, a generation on, when westwards immigration comes mainly from outside Europe, a sense of the alternating alienation and belonging is evoked by the overlay of these many vernacular voices. Beautifully and powerfully composed.

Recommended by Amanda Hopkinson (translator, critic, and former Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation)

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