By Sofia Jesus

Shocking, moving, brave, honest. The Return, by awarded Portuguese writer Dulce Maria Cardoso, is undoubtedly one of the best books I read recently.

It tells the story of a Portuguese family that had to leave its home in Angola in 1975, due to the instability of the decolonization process. They were called returnees — retornados, in Portuguese.

The first-person narrator is Rui, a fifteen-year old boy who dreamed about beautiful girls with cherry-made earrings in the metropole — the name usually given to Lisbon, as the capital of the old Portuguese empire. He used to think everything would be better in the metropole. Until one day he was forced to move there with his mother and sister, leaving his father behind.

They were one of the hundreds of returnee families who lived for more than a year in a five-star hotel that felt anything but. They were lodged there as a temporary solution provided by Portuguese authorities in “troubled times,” as the hotel’s director kept telling them.

The story is masterly told through Rui’s eyes. Through a cascade of thoughts, we follow his disappointment, his fear, his despair, his rage, his hope. And those of many others.

When Portuguese schools grouped returnee kids in a row and addressed them as such and not by their name, as Rui tells us, we can see the process of integration, as well-intended as it may have been, failed.

The book is anything but politically correct — if there is such a thing. Racism and discrimination are bravely addressed by the author. Rui, for instance, appears to us both as a teenager full of prejudice against Angola’s black community and as a victim of discrimination in Portugal. I did not feel there were the good guys and the bad; I felt everyone was both here and there and that makes the novel as real as it gets. And as disturbing. Again: shocking, moving, brave, honest.

The Return — inspired by the author’s personal story, as I found out later — is wonderfully, breathtakingly written, but it is much more than a literary delight. By telling the story of a family of returnees, the book gave me a history class. Yes, I knew the basic facts. But so little did I actually understand about the situation those people — all of them — faced back then. We tend to forget history is made of people — not numbers; not flags.

 

O Retorno

Dulce Maria Cardoso

Tinta da China, 2011