northern temptation

Image: Carlos Cruz–Diez
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By AFRANIO CATANI*

Commentary on the book by Manuel Alegre

Manuel Alegre is not as well known in Brazil as he is in Portugal, where he was born in 1936, although some of the more than forty of his titles have even been reissued here. His vast production includes novels, short stories, essays and poetry, the genre in which he stood out the most. He has received at least two dozen significant literary awards. He studied in Lisbon, Porto and at the Faculty of Law of Coimbra, having won championships in swimming and, as a young man, acted as an actor at the Teatro Universitário de Coimbra.

Mobilized to Angola in 1961, he ended up being arrested by the International and State Defense Police (PIDE), the armed wing of the regime of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), and was detained for six months in the Fortress of São Paulo, in Luanda, where he wrote a significant part of the poems of Song Square (1965), his first book, banned by the Salazarist government.

He experienced exile and, in 1964, was elected a member of the national committee of the Patriotic Front of National Liberation, starting to work in Algiers, on the radio station “Voz da Liberdade”, as an announcer and political commentator. He returned to Portugal after the 25th of April 1974, becoming historical leader of the Socialist Party since that date. He was Vice-President of the Assembly of the Republic from 1995 to 2009 and member of the Council of State. He served as deputy for 34 years and, since July 2022, he has again become a member of the State Council, elected by the Assembly of the Republic, representing the Socialist Party.

northern temptation, a small, great novel, is a story of love and political struggle full of symbolism, with just over forty pages composed in large fonts, with a cover by Rui Garrido with simple and functional lines, on a white background, giving even greater lightness to the volume.

“I feel an urgent need to leave for the North. It's strange, I've always had the temptation of the South, an irremediable longing for everything that's in the South, if not the very south of the South. But today I woke up with the uncontainable urge to leave for the North. As if everything depended on this departure, or journey, or search, whatever it was. And without really knowing why or what. I know something irreplaceable is there. Maybe a little bit of me. Perhaps a long-abandoned house. Maybe someone. And that's what it's hard for me to verbalize, someone. But who ? Do I know and try to pretend I don't know? Someone that I have always kept hidden inside me and that I looked for in the South knowing long ago that he was lost in the North?” (p. 7-8). so it begins northern temptation, completed in March 2021 and published in Portugal in October of the same year.

Right at the beginning, the narrator reveals that his departure for the South was not due to the temptation of the South itself, “it was the threat of prison or death. I was on the list to be shot down, I was warned at the last moment, with no time for anything but to leave, flee, disappear” (p. 9). He regretted returning to the South, the South was of no use to him, “not even the south of the South”, because “my life was someone who was waiting for me in the middle of the fog and a beach in the North which, that morning, was the North itself, if not the North of the North” (p. 10). He always walked with the temptation of the South within him, until he couldn't resist: he wants to leave for the North.

The novel is of an indefinite nature, perhaps “the outline of a short story” or “the beginning of a poetic narrative, or almost” (p. 41), or “a poetic temptation to meet you on that beach that, you know, it is always north of the North” (p. 44). The narrator – there are doubts, initially about who he is; little by little things clear up, but doubts will persist – he wants to meet a lover where there is “the beach and you, with your hair loose, your eyes the color of the sea on a stormy day, neither blue, nor green, gray as is perhaps the color of the north wind” (p. 14-15). But he is far away, in Arzila, Morocco, where “the Atlantic is bluer” (p. 15).

However, the meeting did not take place, as the lovers committed crimes: the man's was to love without asking permission from the party; the woman's was to leave alone for the meeting (p. 21). The man raises the hypothesis that the grandmother of his beloved, from Santander, “warned the Basque family, divided between the PNV [Basque Nationalist Party], Batasuna [Unity], ETA [Basque Homeland and Freedom] (…) They say that the Basques don't like to see their women fall into the arms of others, much less those of a Portuguese communist” (p. 21).

As has been said, the meeting failed and he had to flee, becoming a wanderer: Arzila, soon Cairo, then Khartoum – “I will cross several deserts, those outside and those inside. Further and further south” (p. 22). I remember the excellent in your desert, the quasi-novel by Miguel de Souza Tavares. But there is East Berlin, there are other loves, departures, farewells…

Around the middle of the narrative, there is a change of narrator; actually a narrator, the lover, named Ju. She writes for a publisher – so it's not reality, it's fiction, a novel within a novel? –, revealing that what has been written so far by the man who felt the temptation to go North has little to do with reality, since the facts are quite different, namely: the then male narrator fell into an ambush and he was shot by a PIDE agent, not on a beach, but on the northern border (“to the north of the North, to speak as he writes” (p. 30). He adds that “it was not a love encounter, at least not it was just about love, but political” (p. 30) And reversing the roles, she declares that she, Ju, was the one who militated in the Portuguese Communist Party (p. 30).

Ju will also inform us that the lover, the male narrator who had fictionalized everything is called Alexandre (known as Sasha). Furthermore, the PIDE agent injured Sasha, but he also injured the agent. Ju's words: “The PIDE hit you, you failed the PIDE. I got it by ricochet. I don't know if you killed love, but I know you killed the possibility of us living together in the time it should have been lived. A northern beach? For what?" (p. 38). And she makes the final point: “The old people that we are cannot embrace the young people who separated that day” (p. 38).

The narrator says that they have been together for some time and maybe one day, “Alexandre, my dear Sasha”, he will find out. He insists on saying that he does not know who he is looking for, “whether what I was, or who we are, or whether you yourself, the other, or perhaps the other, the one that doesn’t exist except on that windswept beach, north of the North” (p. 45).

There are still surprises that I cannot reveal, in this non-linear novel, in which the real and the imaginary are mixed up, in which nothing is prescribed, in which Sasha the narrator, turns and moves, faces inevitable urges to leave, having the full certainty that Ju will be, “between sea and wind, on a beach, to the North” (p. 54).

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ (Duque de Caxias campus).

Reference


Manuel Alegre. northern temptation. Alfragide, Portugal: Publicações Dom Quixote, 2021, 60 pages (https://amzn.to/3Os5C4c).


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