Obituary: Miguel Torga

James Kirkup
Friday 20 January 1995 01:02 GMT

Adolfo Correira da Rocha (Miguel Torga), poet, novelist, doctor of medicine: born Sao Martinho de Anta 12 August 1907; died Coimbra 17 January 1995.

By one of those pleasant accidents that rejoice the common reader, I happened to pick out of a second-hand box a book illustrated by Gregorio Prieto, whom I was collecting. It bore the English title Farrusco the Blackbird, by Miguel Torga, and contained delightful children's stories excellently translated by Denis Brass.

They were set in a mysterious, wild region of northern Portugal called Trs-os-Montes, portrayed in spare but vivid descriptions that reminded me of the gaunt, rocky beauty of Galway and Connemara. In the simple prose I recognised the language of a poet.I mastered the basics of Portuguese so that, with the help of a good dictionary, I was able to read (though never speak) the tongue of Camoens, Jose-Maria Eca de Queiros and that other great insubordinate poet Jorge de Sena, exemplary literary companionof Torga's unique genius.

Miguel Torga was born at the heart of this remote and legendary region of illiterate shepherds, farmers, smugglers and adventurers, in the village of Sao Marinho de Anta (near Sabrosa, birthplace of Magellan) on the road from Porto to Braganca. He was baptised in the Roman Catholic faith as Adolfo Correira da Rocha, but published only one book under that name, his first volume of poems ominously entitled Anaiedade ("Anxiety") in 1928. Then he adopted the pen-name of Miguel Torga - Miguel in veneration o f Cervantes, Unamuno and Montaigne, Torga from the dialect name of a particularly tough, strong-rooted species of wild heather - a peculiarly appropriate image for a man of such ineradicable convictions and rigorous artistry.

His education in Jesuit seminaries made of him a lifelong atheist, though he sometimes used the less sadistic imagery of Christianity. At an early age, he was uprooted from his "marvellous kingdom" and sent to Brazil to work as an underpaid labourer on an uncle's coffee plantations. He was engulfed in that heartsick nostalgia for home to which the Portuguese have given the haunting name of saudade, and suffered the misery of exile under soul-destroying conditions, all of which is movingly related in thefirst two books of a vast autobiographical fresco beginning with the six-volume A criacao du mondo ("The Creation of the World") and continued in the journals (published, like nearly all his work, at his own expense) encompassi ng a score or so of volumes from 1937 on.

When he returned to Portugal, he entered the venerable School of Medicine at the University of Coimbra, where he graduated in 1933, and started practising in his beloved home village before moving to Coimbra in 1940. At the same time, he was beginning a very active literary career, collaborating on the avant-garde review Presenca until 1930, and founding the libertarian review Sinai and the short-lived politically angled Manifesto (1936) in which he expressed violent opposition to the rising tide of Fascism in Europe. His extreme left-wing stance was to draw upon him the wrath and disfavour of the authorities, leading to the banning of his works and several periods in the dictator Salazar's jails. Yet he continued his healing mission, largely for the poor and the persecuted, and went on writing poetry, novels and short stories that became classics. In the end, he wrote in fiercely independent solitude, rejecting all literary groups and salons in order to preserve his intellectual and artistic freedom.His tenacity of purpose informed all aspects of his life with scrupulous professional integrity and artistic conviction. He declared, "Medicine is a duty, literature a discipline", and indeed duty and discipline are what make his work outstandingly cohesive and monumentally eclectic. With his grimly handsome features topped usually by a black beret, he often referred to himself as "the monolith", sometimes qualified by "granitic". Yet he was a man of exquisite courtesy and sensitivity.

All through Salazar's repressive nationalistic, right-wing, reactionary Catholic and militaristic regime, Torga went on producing and paying for (in both senses) prose works and small collections of lyrical and indomitably individual poetry, culminating in the Poemas ibericos of 1965. These were noble odes addressed to his literary gods - Seneca, Cervantes, Camoens, Goya, Unamuno, Pessoa, Lorca - and to his spiritual heroes St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and the anti-colonial missionary to Brazil Antnio Vieira, a Jesuit he admired above all others. But also, and above all, Torga wrote poems of sparse punctuation and rich imagery, singing with harsh and unsentimental realism about his native Iberia, its grudging earth, its teeming seas and r ivers, its imprisoning mountains: Like an undulating cloak of misery Covering with blackness the colours of its sores This is all you are - you crust of old rocks On the body of Iberia.

But there are also poems about the gifts that land brings us - wines, bread, olives, wool, linen. For all Torga's work is deeply rooted in his native heath, in the earth and rocks of a country exiled to the edge of Europe. His passionate love and reverence for his native land can be seen even more clearly in a deeply imaginative prose work, Portugal, a masterly anti-guidebook guidebook which begins: I'm going to talk to you about a marvellous kingdom - my own and also belonging to all those who deserve it . . . At first one sees an ocean of stones. Waves upon waves of them . . . Incapable of enduring any form of obedience imposed from outside, the i nhabitants of the kingdom consider as natural and legitimate only the imperatives of their own conscience . . . an interior authority that each one receives in his cradle.

One can hardly imagine how this land can produce bread and wine, but produce them it does. Wholemeal bread. Because it is real bread, kneaded with the sweat of the brow. It has a taste of hard work. That is why people in these parts pick it up and kiss it if it falls to the ground . . . The wines - moscatel, alvarelhao, pernaguiota or malvasia. Velvet to the palate, despite snows, frosts and the burning wind from the south . . .

And so it goes on, a constant stream of fresh, conversational, enchanting talk that is also among the purest prose ever written. It is impregnated with a universal sense of ancient mysteries and mythological forces investing the agricultural and pastorallife of the peasants. His superb short stories express with dramatic intensity the superhuman vision the grim lives of rural folk. In the sixth volume of The Creation of the World Torga's epigraph is: "The universal is the local without walls." He wrotefor all men.

He also has a satiric gift seen best in O Senhor Ventura (revised version, 1985). It is the sprightly picaresque tale of a typical Torga hero with a Quixotic mix of wily adventurer and regretful exile who sets up a Portuguese cafe for fellow-exiles in China, and at the same time sells arms to the Chinese. This shady dealer is an honest rebel, sensual and sentimental, the archetypal opposite of Torga, "the man of the mountains", embodied in Ventura - "the man of the plain", a lovable rogue but not to betrusted. These striking contrasts in the Portuguese character are brilliantly depicted in Novos contos de montanha ("New Tales from the Mountains") in various editions from 1944 to 1975.

Miguel Torga became the patriarch of Portuguese letters. He was awarded the International Grand Prize for Poetry in 1976, and the Prix Camoeno in 1982. In 1992, he was paid homage by France, with the Esquirol Prize for foreign literature. The Journal de Coimbra proudly reported the presence at the ceremony of President Mario Soares, who presented Torga with rare editions of Montaigne, Montesquieu and the first Portuguese edition of Don Quixote with engravings by Gustave Dore. Jorge Amado was there from Brazil to pay a supreme tribute, declaring: "It's a scandal that there has never been a Nobel prizewinner from Portugal. That prize should go to Miguel Torga." At the end of his acceptance speech, Torga declared with his usual forthright spirit: "No standardising treaty of Maastricht will ever obliterate with its rubber stamps the stained glass at Chartres or the writings of Marcel Proust."

Or, we might add, the writings of that great fighter for human dignity and individuality, the poet Miguel Torga.

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