Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Portugal, Europe's Best Kept Secret - a first try at Ballad of Dogs' Beach by José Cardoso Pires

The books at hand is Ballad of Dogs’ Beach: Dossier of a Crime by José Cardoso Pires, published in Portugal in 1982 to acclaim and prizes, translated by Mary Fitton and published in English in 1986 to somewhat more muted acclaim.  I vaguely remember this book getting some attention long ago.  It is a good one, but a tough nut.

The novel begins with a body – it is, in some sense, a murder mystery.  We are reading a police document, apparently, “BODY OF UNKNOWN MAN \ found, Praia do Mastro, 3rd April, 1960,” followed by fifteen numbered descriptive details (“10 perforation of oesophagus”) and then a note on the surroundings: “Shreds of clothing at no great distance, torn by dogs.”

But then the document ends, followed by white space.  A distant third person narrator takes up the description, looking at the stray dogs and rubbish and an out-of-place travel poster “in English: PORTUGAL, EUROPE’S BEST-KEPT SECRET.”  Now there is an example of what we call foreshadowing.  The Portugal of Salazar’s rigid dictatorship is full of secrets, although many of them turn out to be badly-kept.

A detective novel needs a detective.  There he is, on page 5, Inspector Elias Santana, nicknamed Graveyard.  Pale, near-sighted, digestive troubles, and one weirdly long and polished pinky fingernail, which creeps out the main female suspect for the entire book.  He is who we spend the book with, when we are not leafing through the dossier:

‘Today’s the day we receive a kick in the pants from the corpse, my friend.  How’s that for a novelty?’

In the cage, listening, was a lizard.  Either listening or feigning sleep, you couldn’t tell.  He was a big lizard, the colour of sand, and Elias called him Reptile.  He lay as if permanently poised for flight, head motionless, neck extended, long black claws spread and gripping strongly.

‘And you, with your reptile thoughts,’ Elias told this one and only confidante, ‘you could not care less.’ (7)

The kick in the pants is that the corpse turns out to be an army officer who had been arrested for his part in an attempted military coup but had recently escaped.  The case is political, the secret police will take it over, and it is unclear why Graveyard should bother making an effort to solve the case.

He does solve it, though, almost immediately, because of the lucky capture of one of the conspirators, the victim’s stunning mistress.  Not that the reader learns the answer.  Every piece of information is delivered obliquely, in the wrong place, wrong in an ordinary detective novel, which, to my joy, Dogs’ Beach is not.   The mystery of this mystery is the motive of the detective.  His questions are his own.  He does not blow the lid off of a conspiracy or take down a corrupt general.  He explores his folder of documents, and the crime scene, and Lisbon (Dogs’ Beach is an outstanding Lisbon novel) looking for something only incidentally related to the case.

As a detective novel, the whole thing is likely a failure.  As a political novel, a novel about life under a stagnant and oppressive regime, it is a great success; I have never read a book quite like it.


  1. Interesting--reading this reminded me of The Truth about the Savolta Case by Eduardo Mendoza...set in Barcelona and meant to be a cautionary tale in post-Franco Spain by using the turmoil of the late 1910s/early 1920s. Fortunately the mystery part sounds better developed with Mendoza and the political part is clear without becoming grating. Yeah, I know...another recommendation for the TBR list is exactly what we all need.

    I'll have to keep an eye out for this...

  2. This reminds me of another Salazar era novel (well, set during the Salazar era), Antonio Tabucchi's "The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro." It takes places mostly in Oporto, not Lisbon, but little matter. It's a great Portuguese novel, despite its being written in Italian by an Italian.

    If you don't stop reviewing these intriguing Portuguese novels I may never get any other reading done (many thanks for the António Botto, by the way, which I've just read and re-read in a day).

  3. You know, I think I'll postone Cardoso Pires Part II and start in on this other novel about Salazar's time, the Lobo Antunes, even though I have not finished it. Whatever foggy argument I am trying to make will be clearer, I hope, clearer to me.

    Because, seraillon - yes, oh yes! This stream turns out to be deep, and I haven't even gotten to Saramago. Tabucchi's adoption of Portgual and Portuguese literature is a fascinating phenomenon. I definitely want to try him.

    So glad you liked the Botto.

    Dwight - I want to amend you comment and remove the "Fortunately". The way Cardoso Pires uses and breaks the mystery formula is brilliant. A relief, even. The novel does what the author wants it to do. No cornball climactic fight with the killer on top of a Ferris wheel.

    The Mendoza novel certainly sounds good.

    1. So did you ever finish this novel?

    2. The Lobo Antunes? Yes, I think just a couple days later. I think I was done here.

      This was all the way back in December? It seems more recent for some reason.

    3. No, no, I mean Cardoso Pires' novel; you wrote you were going to postpone it, in the comment above.

    4. Ah, I meant I was postponing Part II of my writing on Cardoso Pires, mixing in the Lobo Antunes novel to make my posts as incomprehensible as possible. I had definitely finished Ballad of Dogs' Beach before I started writing. I assume I had finished it before etc.

  4. Duly noted--thanks for the update.

  5. Only read one by him: "Alexandra Alpha", which he wrote after Ballad. Ballad was actually based on a real crime (of Major Dantas).

  6. The "based on a real crime" (20 years old by the time the book was written) business suggests why the mystery works as it does. Whodunnit is known, whydunnit is known. So the important "why" questions are about all of the little details, which is also what non-mystery novels are about.

    Alexandra Alpha does not seem to be in English, although that title could've tricked me.

  7. A pointless investigation in a country where justice and the truth are irrelevant if they're harmful to the state. Makes me think of Costa-Gavras' movie Z. It's as if the novel knows the investigation will yield no consequences, so it focuses instead on Elias' psychology. A hard man to understand - is he pro-Salazar or just another soul trying to make a living? I loved his loneliness, when he calls a stranger just to have phone sex with her.

    Cardoso Pires was a great writer; it's a pity his short-stories aren't in English.

  8. Yes, it's the mystery of the detective that's the interesting one, and a hard one to solve.

    I am afraid I will need to learn Portuguese, or maybe French, to read more Cardoso Pires.