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Autran Dourado: O risco do bordado (Pattern for a Tapestry)

The Portuguese title of the novel is best translated as The Pattern of the Embroidery but translator John Parker’s translation also conveys the sense of a pattern in families, which is, to a great extent, what this book is about. The story is about João da Fonseca Nogueira who, for most of the book, is a teenager living in the rural community of Duas Pontes, though he does spend some time at boarding school in neighboring São Mateus. Each of the chapters is a small, self-contained story about people João comes into contact with, primarily his family, going back three generations. Each story is told with a mixture of affection and a dose of reality, as everyone, including João himself, has faults. Of course, not only do we learn about the family member but also about João himself.

As João is a teenager, one of the first things we learn about him is his incipient sexuality. The first story is about his fascination with the Bridge House, the local brothel, and his fascination for Teresinha Virado, one of the prostitutes. Through the help of his friend, Zito, João manages to gain access to the House and sees Teresinha up close, something that will continue to entrance him throughout the book, till he falls for Felicia, another prostitute, when older.

However, much of the book is about the various family problems and quarrels. Uncle Maximino has fallen out with his family. Uncle Maximino is the brother of João’s grandfather Tomé and is now dying. By chance his house is just next to the boarding school João attends. Indeed the boys at the school enjoy going to his garden and stealing his fruit. João has never met Uncle Maximino though does spy on him over the garden wall but is too afraid to approach him. Eventually at the suggestion of his grandmother and school teacher (but against the orders of his grandfather), he eventually does visit shortly before Uncle Maximino’s death. The wonderful scene of the young João in the house, with grieving relatives and how he sees his dying and then dead uncle are beautifully told by Dourado and are one of the many skillfully written scenes he treats us to. Other stories include mad Uncle Zózimo and his strange antics, Valentina, a dancer at the circus and another woman João lusts after, the strange and sad death of Zé Mariano, grandfather Tomé’s father, and how he decides to die in the house of his estranged son, Teodomiro, rather than with his nagging wife, and his distant aunt, Margarida, another source for his erotic fantasies. One of the best is the story of Xambá, the fearsome bandit who is shown to have his weaknesses, but who is still admired by many of the inhabitants of Duas Pontes.

Dourado’s skill is to write almost mini-novels, with great attention to detail coupled with first-class story-telling skill. He shows the foibles and the weaknesses as well as the characteristics that make these people interesting to us. All the while, the character of João develops during the book. (At the end, we see him returning to Duas Pontes many years later.) In the end, we get a picture of a troubled family but one that has more or less managed to survive its difficulties.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Expressão e Cultura
First published in English 1984 by Peter Owen