Dulce Maria Cardoso and Ángel Gurría-Quintana discuss THE RETURN


To coincide with the paperback publication of The Return, Dulce Maria Cardoso and her translator Ángel Gurría-Quintana discuss this personal, painfully beautiful novel; a powerful coming-of-age story, set against the violent backdrop of decolonisation and the return to an old homeland.


Ángel Gurría-Quintana: Until the publication of The Return, the subject of the “returnees” had rarely been dealt with in Portuguese literature – why? And did anything change after its publication?

Dulce Maria Cardoso: The subject of the “returnees” had been dealt with – or at least touched upon – by some writers, but the issue of returnees living in hotels had never even been mentioned. And yet this is what happened to so many returnees, particularly the most vulnerable: those who arrived with nothing, and who had no relatives to take them in. The bizarre circumstances that resulted from housing those returnees in hotels were a reflection of the absurdity of empire, and of the way the empire came to end.

In any case, it is true that generally the matter had been almost forgotten for forty years. There are many reasons for that, and I don’t know which is the main one. The truth is that the returnees symbolised a past that everyone wanted to forget – not only during the revolutions that followed decolonisation, but also during the early years of Portugal’s fledgling democracy.

Beyond that, the returnees worked primarily in agriculture, commerce and industry, and had few connections to the arts or the academic world. It is not surprising that neither the returnees nor their contemporaries in the “motherland” had the capacity, or the desire, to reflect on what had happened. Only the next generation could, and wished to, reflect on the return; only the children of the returnees (like myself) could make themselves heard.

I wrote three novels before The Return because I needed the emotional and chronological distance to deal with the subject in the right way. When we are too close, we can’t see properly, reality is out of focus. That may be helpful to write poetry, or for other forms of communication, but I wanted to do something else, I wanted to talk about a past endured by half a million people, a past towards which I felt a special responsibility: what happened could not be forgotten.

The suffering of others is a powerful machine for eliciting emotion, but to expose it gratuitously would be an undignified form of exploitation that I could never be proud of. That is why, even though I too was one of its victims, I needed to find a way of reflecting on the experience that would make it legitimate to revisit and use that suffering.

After the book’s publication there were many public debates, press pieces and exhibitions about the returnees, not necessarily instigated by the novel, but not unconnected to the novel either. I think there is, at the moment, among intellectuals and artists, a desire to think about what it means to be Portuguese. The end of empire and the process of decolonisation are part of our recent identity.

AG: To what extent did you rely on your own recollections in writing the novel? How much did you have to rely on research, or on the stories told by others?

 DC: Most of the historical events I used in the book were in my head from the time I lived through them, in 1975 and 1976. So the greater part of the “collecting” – let’s call it that – was done at the time when everything was happening. I committed everything to memory.

Back then, I still hadn’t realised the double meaning that the word memorise, decorar, has in Portuguese: it means to commit something to memory, but also to embellish. I not only memorised what I lived through, but I also embellished my memories. So they wouldn’t hurt so much. I think this is what everyone who has gone through a painful situation does.

So the most important thing was to pay my memories a visit (or let them visit me), getting rid of some of the embellishments with which I had softened some of them. That, and having made myself available over the years to anything connected to the return that revealed itself, around me or in my head. The roads that lead us to the past are varied, and often tortuous. And the place we arrive at will, in many ways, be shaped by the road that takes us to it.

AG: The Return was published in Portugal in 2012 and was hugely successful. What is your relationship with the novel today?

DC: The book was very well received. I affectionately call it my “little monster”, because it allowed me to be read by many people who would have never read me if I had not written The Return, or who would have taken much longer to discover me.

Even further, the novel shuffled my memories, because after writing it I started talking more about that other family I invented in the novel than about my own. That other family slowly became as real as my own, the things that family experienced are today, for me, as real as what I actually experienced myself. I can no longer think about my return without thinking about the return I wrote about, it’s as if it modified my own past. We think our past is immutable, that change is something that happens in the present or the future, but it is not necessarily like that.

AG: How was the novel received among the “returnees”?

DC: Although in Portugal it is already in its tenth edition, the book has not really reached the returnees. The fact that it is a very literary offering, published by a small independent (though very prestigious) publisher, meant that the book was not widely picked up by a community that does not generally read much, unless it is the books advertised on TV and radio.

However, many of the returnees who did read The Return have said they felt less alone because I had told these stories which are also their stories, because I had tried to understand what happened back then. There was, almost in all cases, a sense of identifying themselves with the book, and I continue to get messages of thanks.

There are also some – very few – who believe I betrayed them. They are the ones who would have wanted me to say that people in the “motherland” were all bad and the returnees were all good. But it is never like that. We are all good and bad at once.

AG: As soon as I had finished translating the book I began missing its narrator, Rui. Why did you choose a teenage boy as your protagonist, instead of, for instance, telling the story from the point of view of a girl, like you were at the time?

DC: I am very happy to hear that you missed Rui. For me, he exists like any flesh and blood person, but I am never sure how real he is to other people.

Like almost all things that happen when we are creating, my Rui was the sum of many fortuitous events. There was a Rui I met in Luanda, whose two brothers were killed, an episode that embodied in my mind everything that was wrong about what happened then. When I was living through the painful situations that followed the return, I often remembered Rui and felt some relief: “at least I did not go through what he went through”. (That I felt such “relief” was, in itself, one of the things that was so wrong.)

I felt the need to pay homage to that Rui, and I decided that the main character would have his name. From that point, the challenge was to distance myself as far as I could from my own teenage girl memories that were not compatible with those of a teenage boy. I had to feel his memories, I had to create him, become him, become someone else. It was also a challenge to use a more limited vocabulary, consistent with the fact that the narrator was an adolescent.

Only much later did I realise that, as the novel was about loss and the possibility of new beginnings, about the end of empire and the creation of a new identity, it was appropriate that the main character should be a teenager. In those years, Portugal was going through a sort of adolescence, in the sense that adolescence is a time of redefining ourselves, a time in which the body is changing and everything else can change. Even though adolescence can often be painful, it is a time when hope is still possible. A revolution can turn an old and tired country into a teenager filled with strength and a sense of future. A revolution, or a crisis like the one we are living through with Brexit and Trump’s election, with refugees and terrorist attacks. As long as there is the will, and the wisdom.

Much later still I realised that, although I had chosen the name for sentimental reasons, Rui was also appropriate in linguistic terms – rui is the imperative of the verb ruir, to collapse, and I had witnessed the collapse of empire.

But now, if I may ask you a question – why did you decide to translate The Return? What gave you the greatest pleasure in writing our book?

AG: I am very grateful that you refer to the translation of The Return as “our book”. I first read the novel after you and I met at a literary festival in Brazil. I was very deeply moved by this tale of loss and longing. I loved Rui’s voice – filled with the insecurities, the rage, the desires and the bluster of a teenage boy. I loved the tenderness you so obviously felt towards him.

 So I recommended The Return to whoever would listen. I was delighted when MacLehose agreed to publish it, and even more so when I was asked to translate it. To work on this novel was a source of great satisfaction, from beginning to end.

 One of my main concerns was trying to reproduce, and stay true to, Rui’s voice – that fine balance of innocence and hard-gained experience that you achieved so well. I was very mindful of trying to (re)create a tone that was as similar as possible, in English, to what you had done in Portuguese.

 Along with bittersweet memories of Africa, the returnees carried back to Portugal a new African vocabulary. This posed one of the most interesting challenges for me: how to translate the novel into English, while conveying to English-language readers the foreignness of the words and expressions imported by the returnees.

ed, Q&AElise Williams