The Portugal Story

John Dos Passos

Read April-May 2007

Much of this book is a potted history of the old school, a boring narration of kings and queens, of set-piece events and of Important Figures. The names are anglicized (sometimes confusingly so, making it difficult to distinguish a Spanish Juan and Portuguese Jo´┐Żo—was the editor asleep?), the tone is antiquated (he routinely uses “Hispanic” when he means “Iberian”—one might have expected more sympathy from a chronicler of the Portuguese!), there is a startlingly lengthy aside on Prester John, and the writing is touchingly old-fashioned (verbs like “invested”, “reduced”, and so on are either no longer used or mean different things). There is scarcely any cultural history. There isn't even an attempt at citations. It's interesting to see just how much even popular historical writing has grown—in the sense of matured—since this sort of book was published (in 1969).

There are flashes of insight in the book. Dos Passos's explanation of the early importance of Braga (p. 19-20) would explain its centrality to the Portuguese religious character and its conservatism. His discussion of Afonso Henriques's policy of tree-planting and preservation (p. 36) demonstrates an early kind of enlightened self-interest in the service of the environment. We learn about just how remarkable the Genoese sailors were from their from their early charting of Africa's coast. But these are offset by his simplistic, usually secondary, reading of, say, the treatment of Jews (as in his belief that, after 1506, “So long as King Manoel lived no Portuguese dared lift his hand against a Jew” (p. 189)), or the lack of hardiness of the Indians (“Many men died of fevers, particularly the people of Malabar who could not support privation as well as the Portuguese” (p. 247)).

Most surprising of all is the quality of writing. His occasional sparkle (“Lisbon [...] offered [the Columbus brothers] a far better chance to rise in the world than Genova la Superba, which was in the sere and yellow of its splendor” (p. 142)) only highlights the generally turgid writing, consisting chiefly of short, weak sentences. Even the towering figure of Henry the Navigator, or the intrigue of the Knights Templar (who barely earn a mention here—an odd contrast to their typical over-representation in medieval histories), cannot inspire a literary turn from Dos Passos. One wonders about his (lack of) passion: Why exactly did John Dos Passos write a history of the Portuguese? I never quite determined this from the reading or from other sources.

All that said, histories of Portugal are not thick on the ground. We learn that the extent of Portuguese occupation in India was far greater than one might assume from their eventual presence. We understand a little more about just how perilous it was to sail in the heyday of Portugal, as highlighted by the tragicomic tale of the rhinoceros that ended up the subject of Dürer's immortal woodcut (the rhino having perished at sea). There are handy plates of illustrations that enhance the reading. And most of all, those who grow up in the belief that Portugal is essentially just like Spain, but a little different in ways not entirely quantifiable, will learn from this history just how different they are and why the differences matter to them.