Obituary: Vergilio Ferreira

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The Independent Online
He was a "man of the north", the great Portuguese novelist and essayist Vergilio Ferreira: born at Melo in the mountains of the Serra da Estrela.

His family had marked him for the priesthood. His youthful sufferings and subsequent revolt in the shades of a repressive and bigoted seminary were later evoked with moving directness in Manha submersa ("Wasted Morning") - his best-known work, which won for him the Prix Femina for its translation into French (1990). It is the story of an endless quest for personal liberty: the author passionately condemns the right of the Church or the government or the family to impose their own vision of what is good and what is evil. It is not surprising that Ferreira became one of the most outspoken critics of Salazar's detested dictatorship.

Ferreira graduated from the University of Coimbra in 1949 with a degree in classical philology, the study of which seems to have consolidated his distrust of the empty jargons of religion and politics. He had read widely in French literature, and was particularly influenced by the works of the existentialists, notably Sartre, on whom he wrote a penetrating study. He also admired Camus and Dostoievsky, and wrote a fine critical appreciation of Malraux.

He started writing as a neo-realist with Mudanca ("Changes", 1949) which critics hailed as the first "existentialist" Portuguese novel. This was followed by 15 other novels, in which the neo-realist tone is tempered to nostalgic longings for the past - memories of lonely childhood, laments for dead friends and relatives, reminiscences of his native mountains' harsh beauty. These exquisitely written stories one reads rather for their smooth, classic style than for "plot", which is almost non-existent.

Ferreira's old people live and breathe with a dignity and eloquence rarely found in modern literature, as in Para Sempre, in which the narrator, at the end of his life, returns "for ever" to the house where he spent his childhood, now deserted, peopled only by phantoms. Yet the old man remains lucid and not without humour as he casts sharp glances back at his own failed life. He broods on the death of a son whose death he considers to have been useless, sad reward for vain revolt.

Aparicao ("Apparition", 1959) follows the same disabused resignation to a sense of life's futility. In Ate ao fim ("To the Very End", 1987) an old father keeps a vigil over the body of a son killed in tragic circumstances: the setting is an ancient chapel beside the sea, evoked with persuasive clarity. In Em nome da Terra ("In the Name of the Earth", 1990) another old man, mortally sick, who has had a leg amputated, finds himself left by his children in an old people's home. It is his favourite daughter who has brought him to this place, where he drafts a long letter to a dead wife whom he had watched over during her illness, a sort of posthumous conversation of great subtlety, yet simple and profoundly touching.

Ferreira was a gifted essayist, and kept a voluminous diary, intended for publication, which reveals aspects of the man unsuspected in his novels, which he says were "screens", while the diary published as Conta corrente ("Current Account") is a literary form revealing body and soul in all their nakedness.

He won numerous prizes - the Premio Camilo Castelo Branco for Aparicin, the Gran Premio APE for Ate ao fim, the Premio de la Casa de Prensa for Alegria breve. The President of Portugal, Mario Soares, a personal friend of Vergilio Ferreira, described his passing as "an enormous loss for Portuguese and world literature". The newspaper O Pblico recalls his persistent struggles against dictatorships, against "irrational tyrannies" like Salazar's and Stalin's.

For an author obsessed by the death of loved ones, it is remarkable that his death followed only 24 hours after he attended the funeral of his brother at Melo, where he himself will find his resting place.

James Kirkup

Vergilio Ferreira, writer: born Melo, Portugal 28 January 1916; died Sintra 1 March 1996.