Tuesday, 24 February 2015


“Do not disturb the peace that I’ve managed to attain. Hearing your voice again would be like trying to quench thirst with salt water.” - Miguel Torga

Miguel Torga is the nom de plume of Portuguese author Adolfo Correia da Rocha (1907 – 1995), born in Trás-os-Montes, a remote, desolate, poor region in the North of the country, a place from which many natives were to emigrate in search of a better future. He is considered one of the greatest Portuguese writers of the 20th century. He wrote poetry, short stories, theatre and a 16-volume diary. Miguel Torga became known first through his beautiful poems, but his significant literary work also includes prose.

“Tales from the Mountain”, is a collection of short stories focussed on the way of life and the people of his native land, and more specifically the place of his birth Trás-os-Montes. The author was throughout his life sentimentally rooted to this region, reliving memories of his early childhood, a place he was forced to leave but whose nostalgic prints remained forever in his mind.

However, these are not water-coloured tales of soppy sentimentality. Trás-os-Montes is an isolated area of Portugal, where people have to struggle to make the infertile, sparse land yield frugal crops. The lives of the people there are harsh and bitter, and the author does not hide the truth of their hard labours and brutal exigencies. But, lighting the gloom and softening the tone, Torga imbues his stories with history and culture, which transcend the harsh existence of his characters.

These short stories have a universal appeal, but especially so for anyone familiar with life on the land and its many vicissitudes. Narration is in the third person, and the reader becomes involved in the lament for the life of those who live and face their often bleak destiny. With these twenty-two short tales (about six pages each), the reader discovers the breadth of human nature, the commonality of experiences and the elemental passions that drive all of us.

In one story, a man struggles with the diagnosis of leprosy and the banishment from his village; in another, a thief robs a church but discovers the hard way that someone else has done his dirty work before him; a village prostitute gets such little help from the men that fathered her children, that she comes to believe that her children have no fathers; a voodoo doll causes a mysterious death; a young boy gets his first Christmas present but also learns at the same time that a family member close to him has died; an elderly gravedigger prepares his own grave, thankful at last that his miserable existence is ending; a covert community of Jews take great pains to hide their religion from the majority of Catholics that makes up the village; a lame shepherd receives the accolade of the village by beating a wolf to death; while a priest unexpectedly delivers a baby…

Torga’s brutally frank view of rural life led to the banning of the “Tales from the Mountains” when they were first published. Later editions were published in Brazil, smuggled into Portugal and passed from hand to hand in literary and student circles. Torga was imprisoned for his unremitting opposition to the Salazar regime. He has since risen to an unrivalled position in modern Portuguese literature, with fifty published works to his credit, including poetry, fiction, plays, journals, essays, and a celebrated autobiography. He has received numerous international awards, twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize, and his work has been translated into most languages.

I guess from my description that it is easy to dismiss these Tales as irrelevant to today’s urban dwellers. After all one may remark, the author was born into a family of illiterate country people and he describes harsh village life that is far removed from today’s modern city slickers. But Torga speaks a universal human language, complex in emotion and thought, direct in action, dealing with matters of love and hate, life and death. He speaks with direct and terse language, describing lives without the comfortable illusions and material expectations that protect most people. It is this honesty and stripping back of human nature to its essence that makes his writing accessible and relevant to all who may read it.

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