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Liberation in Lisbon

The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters

by Maria Isabel Barreno, by Maria Teresa Horta, by Maria Velho da Costa, translated by Helen R. Lane
Doubleday, 432 pp., $10.00

The revolutionary Portugal of this year and last year may at first seem infinitely removed from the land in which this book, and that older book which partly inspired it, were written. The original “Portuguese Letters,” which may have been a seventeenth-century forgery, as some recent scholars insist, were presumably written to the lover who had abandoned her by a young nun, Mariana Alcoforado, from her convent at Beja in the brown silent plains of the Alentejo. The New Portuguese Letters, a huge and complicated garland—or perhaps wreath—of poetry and prose written by three women, dates from the last years of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship.

Now that melancholy town of Beja is noisy with the rebellion of the landless laborers, beginning at last to occupy the half-cultivated estates of the absentee landlords of the Alentejo. And the repression, the traditionalism, the silent isolation in which the three Marias and their people lived have broken apart. But into what parts? Before, there was the rigid dictatorship of morals and the censorship. Now there are the leering, awkward mobs of men around the pavement stall on Rossio or Restauradores, flicking through the hard-porn magazines flooding in from West Germany and bolstering their “machismo” with bursts of laughter at once contemptuous and frightened. There is a furious political life which brings human beings together at last, only to reveal to them their terrible separateness, their almost insuperable difficulties in speaking of their lives and futures except through stiff slogans.

The gate of the convent may have had its huge bolts and padlocks shot away, but “Mariana” still finds herself bereft, the Chevalier de Chamilly still rides away in fear from the place where he has been naked. The battle for divorce and abortion is being won, and the Marias have fought powerfully in the battle, but they must look back with new respect on the warning of one of them against

this farce, this delusion, this false and shameful “liberation” which has made [woman] even more of a prisoner (a prisoner of herself), caught fast in the meshes of a society that uses the woman,…the spoil today of warriors who pretend to be our comrades in the struggle, but who merely seek to mount us and be cavaliers of Marianas….

The alliance of the three Marias themselves began in 1971. Maria Isabel and Maria Fátima were both writers, both employed at the Institute of Industrial Research. Maria Teresa was a journalist, literary editor of a Lisbon daily, and a poet whose book of verse Milady of Me had provoked a celebrated scandal. All were middle-class, in their thirties, convent-educated, married, mothers of sons. They began to meet, once a week at a restaurant and once a week in the evening at home, to plan a work about woman in society which would also be a self-exploration for each of them and a mutual exploration of their own differences. Their views and natures were far apart: Maria Isabel the coolest, Maria Teresa the gaudiest personality, Maria Fátima the one who swerved away from pure feminism toward social and psychological analyses of a whole people’s oppression. They agreed to build the work around Letters of a Portuguese Nun, which already brought together, as they put it, “passion, feminine seclusion, and sisterhood; the act of writing; man and woman as strangers to each other; the couple; a national and personal sense of isolation and abandonment; hatred, separation, war; religious and moral prejudices and taboos; guilt; the pursuit of joy and pleasure….”

When the book came out, the three Marias were arrested and charged with “abuse of press freedom” and “outrage to public decency.” Their famous trial began in October, 1972, and rambled on until April; 1974; sentence was then to be pronounced but the judge, a gentleman with hypersensitive antennae, adjourned his verdict for three weeks. Seven days later, the army rose and overthrew fascism, and in May that astute judge was able to acquit the Marias, release their book, and praise it as a work of literary merit.

It would be easy to say that the book was outdated by the time that it was released again, and it may be that some of the Marias think so. The esoteric language of protest in the late Caetano years is needless now. But New Portuguese Letters is not exactly esoteric. It is often maddeningly imprecise, self-indulgent, and flatulent, as each author (the contributions are not attributed to their respective Marias) performs verbal acrobatics to avoid revealing herself to the others, rather than to the censor. Where it is precise, however, the book still bites. Where it is erotic, it is neither exhibitionist nor coy but well calculated to touch the mind through emotion.

The Marias write to one another, sometimes questioning, sometimes accusing. They include verse. They build on the tale of Mariana, and invent for her not only other letters—and replies from the Chevalier—but generations of female descendants each confronted with the sexist ethos of her epoch. They invent the letters of a lonely soldier of our own times, absent at the African wars, and the letters of an aging peasant woman whose husband is laboring in Canada and evading her miseries. There are the soliloquies of a woman committed to a mental hospital, of a wife preparing for suicide. A young student writes to her lover, a conscript deserter who has fled to France: “What harm did we ever do that made them bring us up to be little kings and queens sitting on thrones for sale, what harm did we ever do to be forced to suffer all this dissension and all these separations on account of the African question? Je t’aime, je t’aime—how can you say a thing like that in Portuguese…?”

There are many such political themes. But at the end of the book, the original Letters of a Portuguese Nun are reprinted: if a first glance suggests that they are mere belles-lettres, work of conventional sentiment, whatever their authenticity, close reading reveals an extraordinary spareness, an accuracy about cross-currents and deceptions of feeling that is rare in literature until the rediscovery of psychological irony in the nineteenth-century novel. The three Marias have used critical intelligence on every sentence, deriving from their Mariana most of the perceptions which they expand in their book. “We accuse her, refusing to rehabilitate her, to forgive her for her weakness, her cowardliness, making a stone of her in order to cast it at others and at ourselves.”

They agree, for example, with the nun’s insight into her motives: she takes a ride on the cavalier into herself, dismounts to explore, and then uses his “ungratefulness” to return again. “I love my passion more than I love you,” she is made to say, and finally to admit that through writing, “I came to love writing letters more than you…the only real pain that I perhaps feel in my heart today is not knowing who I might have been had I not been born enslaved, had I been born a male.”

Physical separation, and when man and woman are together, another depth of separation. One Maria talks of “the destiny of men and women irremediably branched off in two opposite directions…lovers pass by in pairs, and we know that they are irremediably separated.” And another: “Will love ever find any other way save this: love that uses or is used?” Persistently, they brood on the use of love for vengeance: Mariana’s true father is imagined as a man who seduced her mother out of hatred for her husband; the young Mónica kills herself as she admits that she has used her husband to forget another man; a father rapes his daughter; a modern Mariana copulates with a dog because her husband is fighting in Angola.

Men, too, suffer, which makes their frightened anger at their loneliness no better. The Chevalier storms at Mariana for her “depraved sensuality,” and suggests—vengeance once more—that she used him to strike at her mother for sending her to a convent. “Never once, Senhora, did I see your eyes cloud over…you are so pregnant with your own self, Mariana, that your womb will never engender any other life save your own.” He returns to his country estate in France, to his own “cloister,” because the discovery of “the absence of me in you” destroys his confidence and his faith: “you are not a serious woman, Mariana,” and this discovery teaches him “how serious a person I am.”

The Marias are sardonic and tender about the men of their own Lisbon: fragile creatures, as one Maria remarks, in a tearing hurry to demonstrate their virility. At the end of the book, one writes: “we are fond of men (very fond in fact), but never in secret, and only if they are not expert horsemen (which is difficult, let us agree…), and in the end we laughed. Oh, sisters, how we laughed!”

The Marias conclude by gracefully taking leave of each other, after a final period in which they were in any case beginning to follow divergent ways on the deeper levels of analysis they reached. “We shall go on alone, but we shall feel less forsaken.” It may also be that they were shaken by the drift of their own reflections. Their view of sexism becomes, in the end, that this evil is transmitted and perpetuated through generations by love itself, just as the Calvinists believed that the original sin of Adam was carried down to all his generations through the sexual act. Lovers use each other, mothers bequeath hatred to their daughters. One of Mariana’s descendants is made to be a woman of the late Enlightenment, writing in 1800 that the logic of her position obliges her to stay alone: “I have no desire for love save that between equals: it is for that reason that I refused a husband, that I rejected men.”

As Helen Lane says in her introduction (she is also the translator of what must have been an almost impossibly difficult and subtle use of Portuguese, and she deserves every honor), the Marias are describing “the destructive effects of a kind of female blood curse passed on from hating mother to hated daughter.” They do not know the formula to break the curse, the recipe for liberation, and they break off disconsolate.

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