5 Books To Better Understand Portuguese Culture

Written By Araci Almeida

Recently, Portugal has gone from being a country known by few to one with a place in the limelight, both in tourism and as a place many choose to live in.

However, many either have a distorted notion of reality or are entirely unaware of a country’s enormous historical and cultural wealth that, according to Luís Vaz de Camões, “gave worlds to the world.”

Here, then, is a short list of five books that may better enlighten the traveler about the culture, history, and life of the Portuguese. Hopefully, these books will help you better understand Portuguese culture. 

1. The Portuguese: A Modern History by Barry Hatton

We begin oddly enough with an author who is not Portuguese but who has nevertheless devoted his life to writing and understanding Portuguese culture as few others have done.

In this book, British author and journalist Barry Hatton brings together a collection of several articles he has written informally about Portugal, focusing a lot on its history, myths, and symbols that still today have a significant impact on the way the Portuguese see their world and interact with each other.

The book is a journey through medieval and contemporary Portugal, highlighting the time of the discoveries as a period of good fortune for the country and also explaining an empire’s decay and how this affected Portuguese morality.

The reader will learn more about the Portuguese relationship to the longest dictatorship in Western Europe, the impact of the Carnation Revolution, and the change and evolution that took place in its aftermath.

You will also travel through fado music, gastronomy, and the history of its origins. Many may feel that the author focuses only on the basics, perhaps leaving out many other perspectives.

However, for those who are totally unaware of Portuguese culture, this book is an excellent recommendation for those who want to know more.

2. Travel to Portugal by José Saramago

The only Nobel of Portuguese literature, José Saramago, wrote a book as the result of a trip he made around Portugal between October 1979 and July 1980 at the invitation of publisher “Círculo de Leitores”. 

As the title indicates, in this journey through the most varied corners of Portugal, the reader becomes the “traveler,” wandering through José Saramago’s words, but also through known and forgotten lands, going from a more agitated Portugal to where time seemed to have stopped.

In the author’s words, the book “is not a tourist guide” but rather a vision of the country through the eyes of the one who narrates it.

Even though it is not a tourist guide in the practical sense of the words, this remarkable book is a pleasant read that gives us the feeling of being on the road with the author, going from village to village, town to town, exploring historical symbols, ancient churches, palatial houses, medieval towers, and thousand-year-old bridges.

At the same time, reading this book is an invitation to get to know the author better, as well as the extensive work that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

3. The Maias: Episodes of Romantic Life by Eça de Queirós

The Maias, the short version of the book’s name, is one of the most famous books of Portuguese literature written by one of the genre’s biggest names, Eça de Queirós.

Although written in the 19th century and published by Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto (one of the most beautiful bookstores in Portugal) in 1888, the book transcends its time.

It is still seen as a very faithful portrait of the existence of hierarchies in Portuguese society and a satire of the country’s aristocracy, which, despite being obsolete, believes itself to have superior morality above all other classes.

This book’s plot is set in late 19th century Lisbon and revolves around three generations of the same family, focusing mainly on the love story between Carlos da Maia and Maria Eduarda, with the family home Ramalhete as its backdrop.

The Maias is considered an excellent novel for its vivid description of society and the social and political changes occurring in Portugal. Still, it also portrays emotional states such as love, envy, betrayal, and the constant search for life’s purpose.

The ending is quite telling of this when the main character tells his best friend that “there is no point in running for anything” since everything in life is an illusion and suffering.

Yet, they both end up desperately running to catch the electrified tram that can take them to a dinner party they are late for.

4. The Murmuring Coast by Lídia Jorge

This book may be enlightening about something that many are unaware of, the Portuguese colonial war in the African territories. This war, which lasted from 1961 to 1974, had, like all armed conflicts, a profound impact on the Portuguese psyche that is still in force today.

Written by Lídia Jorge and published in 1988, the book quickly became a best-seller, selling about 50 thousand books in less than a year. The work is the product of the author’s experience in her years living in Africa, particularly the three years she lived in Mozambique. 

The book’s plot then unfolds in this country in the late sixties and early seventies of the 20th century and is a testimony to the decadence of the Portuguese empire, as well as a vivid portrayal of the years during the colonial war.

Taking place mainly in the Stella Maris hotel, the book’s plot tells us, particularly about the love story between Eva Lopo and Luís Alex, a fighter in the service of Salazar’s fascist regime at the time.

But after portraying their marriage, Eva becomes the prominent voice in the narrative. Having lost all her love for her husband as she sees him turn into a bloodthirsty man, she leads a love affair with a mixed-race journalist out of spite for her husband.

Eva is the voice of lucidity, while Luís, the symbol of the last days of an empire and a regime unable to rule by reason and having to use force and oppression to maintain governance.

The book is the author’s most famous and a great reminder of the state’s power over each individual’s life, as well as a lesson on the Portuguese decolonization process, something so little talked about abroad and in Portugal.

5. Stormy Isles: An Azorean Tale by Vitorino Nemésio

When one thinks of Portugal, most think only of that tiny rectangle leaning against Spain. And even if names like Cristiano Ronaldo or Nelly Furtado are known abroad, many don’t know that they have their origins not from that rectangle but in Madeira and the Azores archipelago, respectively.

And if Madeira has become more famous abroad, the Azores, of immense natural beauty, are only now beginning to take their first steps towards opening up to the world.

Its distance and positioning in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean may explain why they are not so well known and visited, making the Azores a part of Portugal whose culture and society sometimes eludes both Portuguese and foreigners.

But an excellent way to bridge this gap is to turn to literature. In this regard, Vitorino Nemésio’s “Mau Tempo no Canal” (translated as Stormy Isles: an Azorean Tale) is considered one of the most beautiful works of 20th-century literature in Portugal.

It is a window into what it is like to be an Azorean and into the society of a small place, far away from the rest of the world.

This book, written in 1944, is set on the islands of Faial, Terceira, and São Jorge, where the action takes place between 1917 and 1919, portraying the stratified society of the city of Horta in particular.

Of particular note is the portrait of wealthy families and the poor and humble families of the Azorean community, as well as the picture of a typically small society limited by its insularity. A must-read for those who have never heard of the Azores.

See More History & Culture

Although all different, these books all portray a little of what makes Portugal and Portuguese culture so unique. Different voices and stories, but all with something in common: a country called Portugal.

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