‘Border Crossings’: Small episodes of the epic fight against fascism in Europe

by Peter Lownds

Local L.A. activist and writer Eric A. Gordon’s recent translation, Border Crossings (New York: International Publishers, 2021) is one of a series of fictional books written by Manuel Tiago, the nom de plume of Álvaro Cunhal (1913-2005), a beloved radical who held various posts in the Portuguese Communist Party, both before and after the fall of the fascist Salazar regime and whose 2005 funeral in Lisbon drew half a million mourners and spectators. International Publishers and Mr. Gordon aim to translate (from Portuguese) all nine of these books (in English eight, with two shorter ones combined). Border Crossings is the fourth in the series.

Álvaro Cunhal was celebrated as a revolutionary and as a statesman, not as a man of literature. He preferred to keep these identities separate until late in his life when he revealed himself. The thirteen stories in this slender volume bring to mind Bertolt Brecht’s insistence that the theatrical audience must be discouraged from identifying with the characters in order to create an “epic theatre” embracing, in Martin Esslin’s words, “the complexity of the human condition in an age in which the life of individuals could no longer be understood in isolation from the powerful trend of social, economical, or historical forces affecting the lives of millions.”

The characters in Border Crossings are male and female, young and old. There is even a four-year-old girl, mentioned in the final story, who compares a clandestine border crossing to “a vacation” which, for the great majority of the adult characters described, it is decidedly not. The point is that these characters are interchangeable: Only their first names are given and, in some cases, they are protective pseudonyms. There is little effort on the part of the author to flesh them out as truly three-dimensional characters or to provide plots and motives beyond the perilous and self-abnegating travails they undertake. They are Communist Party members, students, escaped political prisoners in varied conditions and locales. Some of the stories, as Gordon explains in his foreword, are based on Cunhal’s own experiences. The focus in these stories is on the physical and ethical complexity of the human condition in missionary circumstances. This is portrayed as epic, in the Brechtian sense, magnified by the perilous conditions of the Iberian peninsula, Germany and Eastern Europe before, during and after the Second World War.

What better time then, to read and learn from these emblematic stories than now, when we seem to be teetering at the edge of another perilous precipice? What Keats called “the willing suspension of disbelief” is easy to shed. We all know, after the two-punch combination of a planetary pandemic and resumption of armored Russian (and let’s not overlook NATO) expansionism, what we are facing. If we can calm ourselves long enough to absorb these brief reminders of the challenges of a divided Europe, and the sacrifice, risk and coordinated support required of and supplied by individuals with a modicum of training to face them, we will be grateful to Manuel Tiago, a writer who in his public life, and at almost unfathomable personal risk, dedicated his every breath and artistic impulse to deepening the democratic project over the course of nearly a century.

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