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José de Almada Negreiros: Nome de Guerra [Nom de Guerre]

Our hero is Antunes, a naive young man from the provinces. His uncle (whose name we never learn) is full of himself. He has never married though, of course, he could have had any woman he wanted. He felt himself superior to everyone else and liked being indispensable or, at least, being considered indispensable in his own eyes. He has decided that he is going to make a man of Antunes (or, at least, his version of what a man, related to him, should be). Accordingly, Antunes is sent off to Lisbon and is entrusted to the care of D. Jorge. Unfortunately, D. Jorge is both stupid and vulgar but the uncle is either not aware of this – he is not very good at noticing things – or does not care.

We meet Antunes and D. Jorge, as the latter is taking the former to a club. He requests a table for four, even though there are only two of them. However, they are soon joined by two young women who are clearly prostitutes. One, who will play an important role in this book, is called Judith. Or rather she isn’t but that is what she is known as. We never learn her real name.

D. Jorge behaves very badly. He is aggressive, bullying and a drunk. They move on to all-night café where D. Jorge continues his bad behaviour, before getting into a taxi and heading nowhere in particular. During the ride Judith seems to lose some if not all of her clothes but Antunes, being a gentleman, feigns not to notice.

It is only the next day that Antunes realises what he needs – a woman companion. Judith is the obvious choice, as he was clearly attracted to her, particularly when she was unclothed. He endeavours to find her. It does not go well.

He looks for her but as he only knows the club and his hotel, his search is limited to the area between the two. While this is going on, Antunes is analysing his own behaviour while the narrator also analyses him. He wanted to live. He was going to let himself live and He had to find, whatever the cost, the door that gives access to humanity. He imagines two women one naked and one clothed but also imagines a young woman tied up, being rescued by a young man, who unties her and then, since she is free, she undresses. He soon realises that the woman tied up is his (platonic) girlfriend from back home while the woman undressing is Judith. In both cases, he has to admit which one he prefers. In short, he wants mad passionate sex. Indeed, when he analyses the situation, he admits to himself that bad women are much more fun than good ones.

While all of this is going on, he is spending money and keeps contacting his parents for more money, which they seem ready to provide. It becomes more expensive when he briefly moves in with Judith. However, his parents are naturally concerned about what is going on. They send numerous letters, which he pockets but does not read. When he finally does read them he realises that Maria, the platonic girlfriend mentioned above, is pining for him.

He gradually comes to realise that Judith is not an end in herself but just part of his growing up. Judith is not a person, she is a touchstone, a step, and entrance, my entrance to reality. When I have crossed the entrance I have arrived at life and the entrance ceases to have any importance. She, aged nineteen, is mature enough to have realised that from the beginning. He aged thirty, is not.

The book can be essentially summed up as young man goes to big city to find himself (sexually) and does. However, there is a lot more to it. Antunes (we later learn that his first name is Louis) is clearly a young(-ish) man who has a lot to learn. In other words, this is a Bildungsroman. However, Antunes analyses himself to death and, indeed, changes his views every few minutes even though we know and, in reality, he knows, he just wants a bit of sex, which he is not getting at home from Maria. Negreiros hammers home his uncertainty, torn between his gentlemanly upbringing and his basic animal needs.

Judith, on the other hand, knows full well what she is. She briefly sees Antunes, a nice, well brought-up young man, apparently in love with her, as a way out but soon realises that all men are the same and they only want one thing. She knows how to operate in that world and is more or less happy co continue doing so.

Negreiros was, amongst other things a futurist, so this is not going to be your conventional novel and it is not. The author jumps in and out of the narrative, commenting, often cynically, about the various characters and is not afraid to mock some of the more conventional novel tropes. I don’t think even Portuguese commentators would consider this a great novel but it certainly is an interesting view of how to grow up and a cynical view of the conventional romantic novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1938 by Edições Europa
No English translation
First published in Dutch as Schuilnaam Judith in 1999 by De Prom
Translated by Catherine Barel
First published in French as Nom de guerre in 1988 by Editions de la Différence
Translated by Marie-Claire Vromans et Anne Viennot
First published in Spanish as Nombre de guerra in 2008 by El Olivo Azul
Translated by Sonia Ayerra y David Santaisabel