Preface, or a Short Introction
To an unknown world
If this preface is meant to be of any relevance to the reader’s enjoyment of this powerful novel by João de Melo, I am in trouble, because my words, whatever they may be, will not suffice to accomplish such a goal. How does one call a reader’s attention to a world geographically so close to the United States yet so removed from it? Indeed, in spite of being relatively near the U.S. Northeast, and despite a two-hundred-year presence of Azorean communities in southeastern New England and in California, and, moreover, in spite of an important American military base on Terceira, one of its islands, the archipelago falls systematically out of range of the American radar. The Azores is a seemingly remote place, lost in the middle of the Atlantic, between New York and Lisbon. Not even the Americans traveling to and from Europe notice its existence. On their way to Europe, usually at night, everybody either sleeps or tries to find ways to entertain themselves. On the way back, following the direction of the sun, the proverbial clouds of the anticyclone hanging over the archipelago cover and blind our view of the islands. Once in a while, the very tip of the imposing Pico Mountain cuts across the thick layers of cotton-looking clouds. But the scenery goes mostly unnoticed. Actually, its majesty, like many beauties of that unique archipelago, can only be appreciated from below.
Yet so much lies underneath those clouds. A lot of it has actually been put in writing, yet it remains hidden in the Portuguese language, which, according to the writer Aquilino Ribeiro, is the mausoleum of a great literature. The Azoreans lived more than five hundred years of isolation from the rest of the world, tormented by storms, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Inevitably, all of that had to leave a mark on those islanders almost lost, or half-abandoned, in the middle of the wide and wild Atlantic Ocean. Some of their history has been depicted by fiction writers and great poets. Pedro da Silveira, one of those poets, and one who, like others, saw emigration to America as the only possible exit, captured the archipelago’s isolation in five lines in an attempt to define “islandness.” The poem is called simply “Island.”
Closed sky, hovering heron.
Open sea. A distant boat’s
hungering prow eyeing forever
those bountiful Californias.1
Not many Azorean writers have succeeded in breaking the sea barriers that separate them from their mainland readers. Not for lack of literary quality, but because for so long the islands were practically forgotten by Portugal, after they ceased to be a mandatory stop on the way back from Africa, Asia, and Brazil, during the centuries that the Portuguese were crossing and controlling the seas. Yet a sizeable number of writers have had their voices heard in the Portuguese mainland, where they can get a much wider readership as well as critical acceptance. Some of them have been duly recognized and their works celebrated and embraced by the mainstream Portuguese literature. This was, for instance, the case of the Azorean classic Vitorino Nemésio with his novel Mau Tempo no Canal,2 considered by many critics one of the best novels of twentieth-century Portuguese literature. Another example is O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino (My World Is Not of This Kingdom), by João de Melo, translated into English by Gregory Rabassa,3 the well-known translator of García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Rabassa deemed Melo’s novel the greatest work of fiction he has read since Marquez’s masterpiece.) The English-speaking readers who are already familiar with João de Melo’s writings and his discovery of magical realism in his native island, where the Government and the Church were for centuries a united front in the control of the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of that almost mythical archipelago, are in for a surprise. In Gente Feliz com Lágrimas, Melo’s creativity brings him to a wider universe, one that follows the routes of the Azorean diaspora. There, the children of a poor Azorean family of nine get away from each other. Some go to mainland Portugal, but most move West in search of the bountiful Californias of Pedro da Silveira’s poem. Even the parents emigrate to Canada, thus emptying completely their island nest and participating in the breaking up of the rigid norms and values of their safe old world, thus also contributing to the splitting and disintegration of a family. So much so that not even Nuno, the main character and narrator who travels to Vancouver to make a last visit to his dying mother, can any longer anymore identify with his kin, almost completely transformed, as he is, by the diasporic experience in the Anglo-American world. He is present at his mother’s funeral, thus witnessing for himself the symbolic end of a family built within a bygone universe.
While Nuno Miguel is the key narrator, there are two others, his brother Luís Miguel, and his sister Maria Amélia, who tell their stories in their own voices. Through them, one reenters the world of My World Is Not of This Kingdom where the sociopolitical as well as deeply religious oppressive environment is now shown as experienced in the bones of a large family ruled by a dictatorial father, one who often resorts to violence to keep his house under control. It is not only the women in the family that are victimized. The only power there lies in the blind way in which the father vents his frustrations through the use of abusive force on everybody at home.
Then, the break-up unfolds. One by one, the children leave, the first ones to the mainland, searching for freedom, ironically, in the prisons of a seminary (Nuno Miguel) and of a convent (Maria Amélia), where their humiliation is the same, only the oppressing figures change. A fourth voice emerges in the final part of the novel and in the life of Nuno Miguel. It speaks harshly and is brutally realistic, as Nuno faces the outside world after the closed walls of the seminary. Love, gender conflicts, real-life dilemmas combine as a tsunami that the opening of the door to the modern world dumps on the face and shoulders of Nuno Miguel. Used to hardships since childhood, he manages to survive, thanks to his resilience and his ever-evolving desire to make sense of life, as well as to his eagerness to search for its meaning in the midst of so much adversity.
Gente Feliz com Lágrimas was widely read in Portugal when it appeared in 1988, and it won the four most important literary prizes awarded in the country. It won also a fifth prize, the Latin Union, which the author went to receive in Lima, Peru. Before this version in English, the novel has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, Romanian, Bulgarian, and, in part, into German.
Onésimo T. Almeida
1. Translation by George Monteiro in The Sea Within: A Selection of Azorean
Poetry, edited by Onésimo T. Almeida (Providence, RI: Gávea-Brown, 1983).
2. Published in 1944 in Lisbon and translated by Francisco Cota Fagundes with the title Stormy Isles: An Azorean tale (Providence, RI: Gávea-Brown, 1994).
3. Minneapolis, MN: Aliform, 2003.