Sorrow rose from memory’s deepest dwelling place

Exemplary Tales book coverExemplary Tales
by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
translated from Portuguese by Alexis Levitin

This is my Portugal choice for the EU Reading Challenge. Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is best known as a poet but little of her work has been translated into English. This collection of her short stories took me some time to track down but was worth the effort.

The stories tend to have religious or moral themes, which I would usually find offputting, but something about Breyner Andresen’s tone meant they worked for me. It’s a weird tone for stories that are – for the most part – grounded in reality.

The opening story, “The bishop’s dinner”, reads like a Biblical parable. A rich man has two guests in the same evening: a planned visit from the bishop and an unexpected visit from a beggar. The story contrasts how the two visitors are treated, the differing reaction of their host and his staff. The religious undertones are underlined by one character being a bishop and conversations revolving around a local priest, but the tenets of Christianity are far from being on display here.

“They were failed musicians: with little artistry, little money, and no fame. They must have been either resigned or seething. I hope they were seething: that would have been less sad. A man in revolt, even if inglorious, is never completely defeated. But passive resignation, resignation through a progressive deafening of one’s being, that is a complete failure and without cure.”

In my favourite of these stories, “The journey”, a couple are driving somewhere, looking forward to a relaxing holiday. But their journey keeps going wrong in increasingly weird ways. It’s surreal to the point of almost being funny, but it manages to keep a tone that made me take their predicament seriously.

Some of the stories are little more than character sketches, albeit poetic ones. In “Homer”, a homeless man called Buzio is described in detail, the way he would move around a seaside town trying to interact with people who continually tell him to move on. It’s sad and Breyner Andresen’s language is wholly humane.

The final story in the collection, “The three kings”, imagines Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. It paints portraits of each man in turn that explain why they would be willing to respond to a sudden religious calling, abandoning their kingdoms temporarily. I don’t remember my Bible well enough to know if any details of the magi are given in the New Testament at all, or if this is pure invention, but they are all good men in different ways.

“It was the face of a thin young man, in which the bones revealed, with no equivocation, the ideogram of hunger. Sorrow rose from memory’s deepest dwelling place and emerged, complete, on the surface of the pupils. Patience, like a dusting of ash, had settled upon his brow, his lips, his shoulders. And in this patience there was such tenderness that Balthazar felt a sudden sharp desire to cry.”

All the stories are beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and told with an eye to social issues.

This translation published 2015 by Tagus Press.

Source: Alibris