valter hugo mãe: a máquina de fazer espanhóis [The Machine for Making Spaniards]
While this book seems to be a story about old age – and it certainly is – it is also about Portugal, particularly Portugal’s recent history, including the dictatorship and its liberation from the dictatorship. We can see this straightaway in the chapter titles. The first chapter, for example, is called The Fascism of Good Men. The second chapter is even better, called Whiteness is a Stage on the Way to Final (Disintegration. (I have capitalised it; as with his name, the entire text of the book is in lower case, a somewhat annoying quirk.) The title, which we will come to later, also reflects the Portuguese political and economic situation. (Interestingly, the Spanish title follows the Portuguese, while the German presumably tries to base its title on the name of the old people’s home, though the original Portuguese calls it, somewhat facetiously, The Happy Age Home, with the German going for the more mundane The Home of Happy Old People.)
The book tells the story of Antonio Silva. At the beginning of the book, Antonio is eighty-four. He had been a barber, eventually owning his own barber’s shop. He and his wife, Laura, have been married for forty-eight years (interestingly enough, their daughter is forty-nine). Their marriage has been a happy one with the usual ups and downs. Moreover, Antonio is now very much dependent on Laura, as she organises his life. When she is taken to hospital and she dies soon afterwards, Antonio is devastated. His children soon move him into a home – The Happy Age Home, mentioned above, a name he sneers at. He does not settle in easily. He is resentful and bitter and generally refuses to speak to anyone there. He is particularly resentful towards his children, both for putting him there but also for not visiting him regularly. However, when they do come, he does not want to see them. After six days, he decides his silence has lasted long enough and he does communicate with the other residents, though he is still bitter towards his family. But his relationships with the other residents are not positive. One night he cannot sleep and he goes into the room of another resident, Marta, and when he will not talk to her, he hits her. The next day, she is found to have had a mild heart attack and is moved to another room.
However, he does make friends with one or two of the residents, including Esteves, who is nearly a hundred years old and who met Fernando Pessoa when he (Esteves) was a young man. Antonio will later become friendly with Mr Pereira and Anisio Franco, both of whom come across as sensible, reasonable men, though Antonio cannot understand Anisio’s religious beliefs. Gradually, he comes to accept life in the home and becomes one of the more sensible and reasonable residents. There are various incidents that take place. These include a fire, which kills three people. The investigating police do not come across well, particularly when they spot a blood stain on the floor of one of the residents, Leopoldina, who gives the police a hard time over their persistent questioning. Marta, one of the residents is unhappy because her much younger husband had left her in the home and now has no contact with her. She is alway expecting a letter or card from him which never comes. When Antonio sends a fake card to her, the result is not entirely satisfactory. And there is one of the residents he cannot stand. This is another Silva, Cristiano Silva, whom Antonio nicknames the European Silva, as he is very keen on the European Union. He had first met him at the hospital where Laura was taken when she got ill and where she died. He did not like him then and likes him even less when he comes to the home.
But, as mentioned above, though this book is about an old man in an old people’s home, it is also about Portugal, particularly Portugal under Salazar but also Portugal since. Antonio is highly critical of what happened (and, to some degree, what is still happening). He sees religion as a way of controlling people, even though Laura was very religious and he went along with it. This explains his criticism of Anisio’s religious views. His view of the police is partially governed by an incident at his barber’s shop. One evening a young man ran into the shop, looking frightened. Neither said a word but Antonio hid him in the broom cupboard. He then locked up as normal and, when he was accosted by the police, said he had seen no-one. The next morning, he let the young man out and gave him a hair cut. However, the young man came back regularly as a customer. When Antonio was approached by the police about the young man, he agreed to help the police, which he did. He still feels guilty about it and now has an antipathy towards the police. Above all he blames Salazar for what he calls the fascism of good men, i.e. the behaviour he himself has shown of people feeling cowed to help an oppressive state.
Later on in the book, a new resident, Enrique, arrives. Enrique was originally Spanish but had been Portuguese for most of his adult life. Indeed, he is adamantly Portuguese and proclaims it more than once, including to the police. But this has Antonio thinking about Portugal and Spain. As the book title states, Portugal has become a machine for making Spaniards, by which he means many Portuguese want to be Spanish, as that means things will improve, with better incomes, better prospects and better lives. This issue comes up more than once in the book. It is not just with Spain. He also mention that many Portuguese children were born in France (there was a big emigration of Portuguese to France) and adds that the Portuguese do not want to be French, they want to be happy in Portugal.
This is a first-class, superbly written novel. It tells the story of an old people’s home and the people in it, without sugar-coating. We get cancer, arguments, depression and deaths but we also get a positive spirit from Antonio and some of his friends, showing that there is a life at the end of life. But we also get a dissection of modern Portugal, with all its problem and that is where mãe makes his point clear – that Portugal was and, to a certain extent, still is a country with many problems and where things do not seem to be getting much better.
First published 2010 by Objectiva
No English translation
Published in German as Das Haus der glücklichen Alten by Nagel & Kimche in 2013
Published in Spanish as La máquina de hacer españoles by Alfaguara in 2011