OBITUARY : David Mourao-Ferreira

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The Independent Online
David Mourao-Ferreira, one of Portugal's foremost literary figures, was born one year after the May 1926 military coup that brought the national- colonialist Salazar regime to power, a fact that would have a considerable influence in his upbringing.

The son of a historian, who chose his best friend, the philosopher Antonio Sergio, an eminent opponent of the regime, for a godfather, Mourao-Ferreira grew up imbued with the liberal tradition that was to be one of the distinguishing marks of his prolific career, both as a novelist and poet, as well as an essayist, book reviewer and professor of literature and, after the regime's collapse in 1974, a secretary of state for culture in successive democratic governments.

He began his fecund career while still a literature student in the late 1940s, writing essays, fiction and poetry, often rising from being a mere contributor to becoming an associate editor of such prestigious magazines as Seara Nova, or a co-founder of others, including Tavola Redonda ("Round Table"), during decades in which one of the most difficult demands on Portuguese creative imagination was the skill to voice coded criticisms or messages of democratic hope past the regime's Boards of Censors.

In 1950 he published his first novel, Secreta Viagem ("Secret Voyage"), with modest success, and from then on published at irregular intervals. In his principal books, Gaivotas em Terra ("Seagulls on Land", 1959) and Hospital de Letras ("Literary Hospital", 1966), he emerges openly as an opponent of the regime, both as an eminent member of the committee which campaigned for the presidential candidacy of General Humberto Delgado against Salazar's own candidate in the 1959 elections, as well as amongst those who protested against the regime upon the gruesome assassination of the then exiled General Delgado by state police agents six years later.

In other ways too, the creative writer and editor, and professor of literature, who never used a typewriter let alone a word-processor, but wrote in longhand, while smoking a pipe and drinking strong coffee, was not merely a "man of letters" in the elitist sense of the word.

He became one of the most popular lyricists for the fado - the mournful and fatalistic mode of song, of partly Moorish origin, which has a long tradition in Portugal. This lyrical writing was the basis of his lifelong friendship with Amalia Rodrigues, one of the foremost proponents of the fado and perhaps the only one who gave it some international projection both in films and concert tours.

Now in her well-preserved seventies, Amalia, as she is known throughout Portugal, was for many years a classical sex-symbol for the Portuguese. Mourao-Ferreira, as evidenced in his books, celebrated woman and feminine erotic allure as much as individual women in his life. The inherent sensuality and stoicism which were so much a part of both his work and Amalia's career made of them archetypal representatives of lisboeta culture - the bold, defiant and risque culture that emanates fom Lisbon towards staid provincial traditions.

Despite his non-conformist stance he nevertheless also gained popularity during the regime, and after, as a presenter of literary television programmes. Some of his most important prize-winning books, notably As quatro estacoes ("The Four Seasons", 1980), and Um amor feliz ("A Happy Love", 1986, which won all the Portuguese literary prizes in its year of publication), where he disguises himself in one of the protagonists, were published after the restoration of democracy and the decolonisation of the centuries-old empire which even in its last form comprised an area some 22 times bigger than Portugal itself.

It was after the April 1974 revolutionary coup that, calling on his capital of popularity and intellectual credibility, the hard-pressed new provisional revolutionary governments called upon him to take up the sensitive post of secretary of state for culture.

In his first tenure of office, at a time when domestic interpartisan turmoil and the impact of summary decolonisation made Portugal appear like a "lunatic asylum under self- management" he did not do too well. And even after subsequent re-appointments in later democratic governments, albeit for different reasons, he was to describe his total of 32 months in public office as the "most frustrating and consuming" of his life.

Last November, despite or because of his determined fight against cancer, he persisted in coming to London to attend the exams for a PhD in Portuguese literature at King's College London. To those who heard his address on another Portuguese poet, Camilo Pessanha, with whose fatalism he strongly identified, he seemed to be giving his own heartfelt farewell to life.

Antonio de Figueiredo

David Mourao-Ferreira, writer: born Lisbon 21 February 1927; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Lisbon 16 June 1996.