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Obituary: Jose Cardoso Pires

JOSE CARDOSO Pires was a best-selling Portuguese writer, some of whose novels were translated into as many as 16 languages, including English.

He was born in 1925 in San Jose do Peso, a rural locality near Vila do Rei and the provincial capital of Castelo Branco, but moved to Lisbon, where for more than three decades he wrote novels, essays, plays and more remunerative observation pieces for newspapers and magazines, and was a founder of the Portuguese Writers' Society.

He achieved his first real impact, outside literary circles, with a short novel O Anjo Ancorado (published in English as The Anchored Angel) in 1958, followed by O Hospede de Job (Job's Guest) in 1963. While the former depicted a society stagnated by a combination of rural under-development and ancestral Catholic-influenced obscurantism, the latter recalled the search for work by one old and one young man in impoverished Portugal, Job's guests being the Americans who trained the Portuguese at the Tancos military and air force training centre.

In 1968 Cardoso Pires published the novel O Delfim (The Dauphin), which many regard as his masterpiece. The "dauphin" refers to the engenheiro, a title which is used as an alternative honorific title to doctor or professor; not merely as a job description, but almost as a successor of the aristocratic titles of old, used likewise to mark social supremacy over an overwhelmingly rural, uneducated and unskilled population.

In 1972, 42 years into the Salazar dictatorship under which his generation had been brought up, Cardoso Pires came to London as a visiting professor of the Cames Chair of Portuguese/Brazilian, now also Portuguese African studies, at King's College London. During his one-year stay in London he was able to highlight the plight of Portuguese writers under the rigours of dictatorial oppression and censorship. Cardoso Pires wrote an essay, "Changing a Nation's Way of Thinking", published in the Spring 1972 edition of Index on Censorship, describing how in the five centuries of its publishing history, coinciding with overseas expansion, imperialism and slavery, Portugal had experienced a record 420 years of censorship - 295 of which had been under the Inquisition (1531-1820) and the remainder under other forms of authoritarian rule.

Under the Estado Novo (new state) national colonialist regime (1926-74), a ruthless system of censorship prevailed, second only to that of the Soviet Union, but without even the "luxury" of the "Letters to the Editor" that were a characteristic feature of Pravda and other Party-controlled papers. Under the Portuguese system, publishers had to submit texts for appraisal by the censors before publication, under threat of penalties that ranged from the banning of any publicity concerning "undesirable" books, to the complete destruction of the premises of the Portuguese Writers' Society in 1965, when it dared to award its Grand Prize to an Angolan writer, Luandino Vieira, whose first book, Luuanda, had been published without the censors' approval.

Upon his return to Portugal, Cardoso Pires, always a fellow traveller but never a Communist Party member, published a famous satire on Dr Antnio de Salazar, under the title of Dinossauro Excelentissimo (1972). Salazar had died two years earlier.

As in the case of Cardoso Pires's fellow Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, this year's Nobel prizewinner, most of Cardoso Pires's prize- winning novels were published in the 1980s. His Balada da Praia dos Caes - Ballad of Dog's Beach - based on a real-life assassination in a passionate drama between clandestine fighters against the regime, could only be published in 1982.

In 1991, having won almost the full range of national literary awards, he was awarded the Latin Union Prize for Literature and subsequently beat Jose Saramago himself in winning Portugal's most prestigious prize, Fernando Pessoa, named after the greatest modern Portuguese poet.

Having suffered a first major stroke in 1995, Cardoso Pires turned his experiences into another moving book De Profundis - Valsa Lenta ("De Profundis - Slow Waltz", 1997) which, like his last-published book, Livro de Bordo ("Lisbon Log Book"), has still not been translated outside Portugal. In July he suffered a second stroke and had remained in a coma ever since.

He is survived by two daughters and his wife, Edite, a professional nurse, who, as he himself said to me, was the main breadwinner of the family, and often the typist of the many texts which he wrote while trying to make a living as a writer.

Jose Cardoso Pires, writer: born San Jose do Peso, Portugal 2 October 1925; married (two daughters); died Lisbon 26 October 1998.