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Lídia Jorge: O Vento Assobiando nas Gruas (The Wind Whistling in the Cranes)

The Leandro family have owned a canning factory in the Algarve since 1908 with, as we shall see, a slight gap. We only learn the details of the history of the factory later in the book when Afonso Leandro, one of the four surviving grandchildren of the founder, José Joaquim Leandro, tells a potential purchaser the story. They have divided the story of the factory into what they calls waves.

The first wave, under José Joaquim, saw him mortgaging everything he had to set up the factory and then, generously, employing girls as young as seven, whose productivity would have been less than zero, just to give their families a helping hand. No, he never, never had an affair with any of the women who worked for him and left no bastards, as other factory owners did. And, during the war, he may have done a few deals with traders shipping the product, marked Surplus, out of the country but he was sure none went to the Nazi army. After he died, his son was not really interested in running the factory so Regina, his daughter-in-law, ran it. She handed it over to her oldest son José Carlos Leandro,

Then came the Carnation Revolution. This revolution toppled the regime of Caetano in Portugal but also resulted in workers taking over factories throughout the country. José Carlos proceeded to hand over the factory to the workers – the second wave. Because of economic conditions and poor management, they made a mess of it and so handed it back to the Leandros – the third wave. The factory was not in good condition, all the equipment had been sold off and José Carlos was dead so it was left. Regina, still very much alive, saw a group of Cape Verdeans hanging out in the factory and she made a deal with them, the Matos family. They paid a low rent and could occupy the factory, provided they looked after it, painted it annually and kept out vagrants and the like. The family – the extended Matos family – agreed.

It is now 1994 and the start of our story. Regina had three sons and two daughters. One son was killed in Angola. José Carlos married an air hostess, who was used to having affairs. She got pregnant and handed over the baby to José Carlos as soon as it was born, and disappeared. The baby, Milene, was brought up by her grandmother. Milene will be the slightly oddball heroine of our story. José Carlos tracked down the wayward air hostess and was bringing her back to the family when the car crashed, killing both of them.

As well as Afonso – divorced and now with Isabel, and father of Milene’s favourite cousin João Paulo – there are Angela Margarida, married to Rui Ludovice, the local mayor, and Gininha, married to Dom Silvestre, a somewhat dubious South African speculator.

The story, however, starts with the death of Regina. It is the busy travel period and all the family are away except for Milene. She lives alone in Villa Regina, as Regina herself is now in a care home. It is Milene that gets a rough idea of what happens. Regina had to go to hospital. She is taken home in an ambulance but the ambulance people do not know she is living in the care home, so they try to take her back to Villa Regina but they cannot find it. They stop at a garage to ask the way and while there, though apparently in a poor state of health, Regina manages to get out and sets off on her own, finding her way to the Factory. Nobody is there, as Janina Matos, a singer and son of Felicia and grandson of Ana, is performing in Lisbon and the whole family has gone to see him. Regina is found dead at the Factory. Milene, we later learn, has had to sort out everything, particularly the funeral but she is very concerned how her absent aunts and uncles will react when they return. She goes to investigate but cannot find any evidence of how her grandmother escaped the ambulance and managed to get to the Factory. Worried about how the aunts and uncles might feel, she decides to hide behind the sheets which are hanging on the line which the Matos have left.

The Matos return and find her and take her in briefly, till her family return. Milene is what? odd? naive? unconventional? She takes to the Matos and they, Antonino, a widower with two children and a girlfriend called Divina, in particular, take to her. It is Antonino who is indirectly responsible for the title of the book as he is a crane driver and Milene will spend many hours simply watching him at work

Milene’s aunts are somewhat sympathetic to her, her uncles less so. They even set up a rota where between the two of them and Afonso they will each spend two nights a week with her, a commitment which they rarely keep to. As Angela Margarida says Milene was thirty in years and fifteen in age. A psychiatrist who had examined Milene when she was younger concluded that she was oligophrenic. She leaves all the lights on in the house at great expense. When she was younger she was very close to her cousins João Paulo, son of Afonso, and Lavinia, daughter of the one killed in Angola. João Paulo had insisted that the three would remain inseparable all their lives. This has not happened. However, Milene telephones João Paulo every day with a detailed account of her life. The only problem is that he is not there and she merely speaks to his voicemail. He is one of four key characters who barely actually appear in this book, except in reference to the past, the other three being Regina, José Carlos and Lavinia. (Lavinia is the narrator but only puts in an appearance at the very end.)

There are many other examples of Milene’s unconventional behaviour, something which exasperates her uncles and aunts. What actually happened when Regina left the ambulance and died is one of the key plot strands. Another is what the aunts and uncles feel they should do something about Milene, who does not have and never has had a job and when offered one quits it within an hour or so. The Leandros are planning to sell the Factory to a developer which means, of course, getting rid of the Matos. We also follow in some depth the Matos family and their goings-on, the relationship between Milene and Antonino and the intra-family issues. Most of the Leandros plus spouses can be said to have some moral and psychological failings.

Racism is, of course a factor. The white Leandros very much look down on the dark-skinned Matos and are horrified at Milene’s association with Antonino. However, it works both ways. Ana Matos says In the bedroom, black with black, white with white, brown with brown, and so on. Nothing simpler. Oh, if Mandela had only thought the same, he wouldn’t have spent his life in prison.

This is quite a long and complex book, with several intertwining plots. Jorge clearly has some sympathy for the Cape Verdean family. They are far more welcoming to Milene than her family are and, indeed, with one or two exceptions, far more moral. The Leandros do not come across well. They are, on the whole, greedy and selfish and concerned with only their own interests and making money and having power, regardless of moral concerns. The background of the economic boom in the Algarve when not only moral issues come up but also environmental ones, adds to the drama. Jorge tells her story very well as it gets more complicated and we and her family wonder what strange thing Milene will do next.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Dom Quixote
First English translation in 2022 by Liveright
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Annie McDermott