Friday, 1 December 2017

Book Review: Grape Harvest by Miguel Torga

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13248808-grape-harvestMy first choice for this week’s review of a Portuguese classic had actually been O Delfim by bestselling author José Cardoso Pires, but after having finished this gorgeous masterpiece from 1968 I noticed with great dismay that it has never been translated into English! Because I take care to present here only books that are or have once been available in English, this meant that I had to switch hurriedly to another literary gem from Portugal. In the end, I picked Grape Harvest by Miguel Torga, a novel from 1945 set in the picturesque landscape of the wine-growing estates in the valley of the Douro River. Like every autumn, people of all ages from the poor mountain villages descend there to earn during two weeks a meagre though desperately needed extra gathering and pressing the grapes to fill the wine-casks of the owner of Cavadinha who is a tough and unsentimental businessman.

Miguel Torga is the pseudonym of Adolfo Correia da Rocha who was born in São Martinho de Anta, Portugal, in August 1907. When he was twelve years old, his parents sent him to work in Brazil on the coffee plantation of an uncle, but he returned to Portugal in 1925. With his uncle’s financial support he finished high school and then studied Medicine at the University of Coimbra while dedicating himself to writing in his free time. He self-published his first literary works among them the poetry collections Ansiedade (1928; tr. Anxiety) and Rampa (1930; tr. Ramp) and the prose work Pão Ázimo (1931; tr. Unleavened Bread). After graduation he worked as a doctor in different places before settling down in Coimbra in 1941 and continued to write. In 1934 he adopted the pen name Miguel Torga and published more than fifty books in his career, most importantly poetry, short stories, plays, essays, travel notes, diaries, five volumes of The Creation of the World (Criação do Mundo: 1937-1981) with clear autobiographical connotation, and the novel Grape Harvest (Vindima: 1945). After 1960 the author was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Miguel Torga died in Coimbra, Portugal, in January 1995.

Like always in September since times immemorial, the capable and willing from the Portuguese village of Penaguião come down from their mountains for about a fortnight to help with the Grape Harvestin the Douro valley. The about forty men, women and children know that work will be backbreaking, board and lodge shameful and daily wages insignificant, but they look forward to the change of scenery. In high spirits they head for the Quinta da Cavadinha belonging to Mr. Lopes from Porto. As is the custom, the owner of the estate has brought wife and children to socialise with other wine producers in the area, especially with the noble Meneses family running a large winery of which the neighbouring Quinta da Junceda is part. Self-made man Lopes longs to get a share in the family business taking advantage of its financial problems or even better marrying either of his children, his dispirited son Alberto or his composed daughter Guiomar, to one of the Meneses and thus becoming one of them. In fact, Alberto is infatuated with the family’s poetess Catarina, but she doesn’t even take notice of him. And Guiomar, instead of connecting with Raul Meneses who shows no interest in her, falls for the ophthalmologist Dr. Bruno from Lisbon who stays at Junceda as a guest and during a visit at Cavadinha saves the life of a labourer whose hand was crushed in the winepress. For Dr. Bruno it’s a sport to turn young women’s heads and when he doesn’t succeed in attracting otherworldly Catarina, he turns his attentions to Guiomar and seduces her in the arbour. The overseer surprises them while on the lookout for a young couple from Penaguião that was found out the night before. But fate has still greater misfortune in store for Mr. Lopes.

From the point of view of an unconcerned third-person narrator, Grape Harvest paints a pleasantly unsentimental, yet vivid and amazingly comprehensive portrait of human society. Although the outside setting clearly makes the novel a (fictitious) testimonial of the hardships that people lived in the vineyards of the Douro River until less than a century ago, its themes and characters are universal and timeless. Spanning only two weeks and surrounding a rather limited cast of characters, the story still succeeds in displaying virtually the whole variety of daily joys and sorrows, passion and indifference, virtue and vice that life has to offer. At the same time, it shows the tension of a world torn between the past and the future juxtaposing not only rich wine producers with poor labourers, but also the old noble Meneses family with the ruthless social climber Mr. Lopes. Moreover, the characters are all so psychologically deep and true to life that after reading I could well imagine meeting them or their likes in flesh and blood somewhere. Notwithstanding my limited knowledge of Portuguese, I read the original edition and still felt the poetical power of the language. Notably the descriptions of landscape are a mere pleasure.

Taking into account that I read Grape Harvest by Miguel Torga in quite a hurry and therefore couldn’t enjoy it as thoroughly as I would have liked to, the novel still was a delightfully impressive and engaging read. I particularly admire the author for having succeeded in writing such an intricate and convincing plot full of action without neglecting the psychological side. It doesn’t happen often that a book makes me long to reread it, but this one did. I also inspires me to read other works from the pen of this writer who judging from this novel would definitely have been a good choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature for which he was nominated more than just once. In a nutshell, this Portuguese classic from 1945 is one of the overlooked literary gems that would deserve much more attention from readers worldwide than it gets. I recommend it more than just warmly.

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