The son of Portuguese emigrants to Brazil, Carlos de Oliveira was born in Belém do Pará in 1921. Two years later the family returned to Portugal, settling in a rural district northwest of Coimbra. It was in Coimbra that the writer went to high school and then on to university, graduating in History and Philosophy with a thesis titled Contribution to a Neo-Realist Aesthetics. That was in 1947, the fifteenth year of the by then firmly entrenched Salazar dictatorship.
Neo-Realism, which could also have been called Social Realism (were it not for the ‘socialist’ implications of this designation, unacceptable to the Portuguese censors), was the literary and artistic movement that prevailed in Portugal from the late 1930s and into the 1950s. Carlos de Oliveira’s novels – including Uma Abelha na Chuva [A Bee in the Rain] (1953), which was made into a movie – count among the highest achievements of Portuguese Neo-Realism, since the author’s concern to denounce economic and social disparities and to foreground the Marxian class struggle did not lead (as it did in some writers of the school) to Manichaean simplifications of human psychology or to a compromise of artistic principles and ambitions.
Carlos de Oliveira, whose prose and poetry are marked by a melancholy tone, was never seduced by the optimism of hardcore Marxism. He was cautiously hopeful (see the ‘Sonnet’, written early on), he believed that it was worth fighting to transform the socio-economic system, but he had a tragic sense of life, a keen awareness of inherent human weaknesses and frustrations that no political revolution or reconfiguration could resolve.
The doomed struggle for perfection was vividly played out in Oliveira’s writing. Not prolific, he obsessively reworked what he wrote, publishing various versions of the same titles. His poetry, which he collected into a single volume taking up only 200 pages, was a constant pursuit of the right words, and of no more than the right words. His poems are an attempt to elaborate, with scientific precision, a linguistic replica of specific moments and realities from the outside world. They don’t aspire to conveying “the big picture” but delve, rather, into the materiality and geometry of the world’s constituent parts.
The most typical Carlos de Oliveira poem is a highly distilled composition which may include many sections but whose lines are quite short (see ‘Lichens’). But he also wrote prose poems (see ‘The Filling Station’ and ‘Dunes’), and his last novel (if ‘novel’ is the write word for it), the much acclaimed Finisterra (1978), could be considered a book-length prose poem. The writer, who also painted, died in Lisbon in 1981.
Poetry in Portuguese
Mãe Pobre, 1945.
Colheita Perdida, 1948.
Descida aos Infernos, 1949.
Terra de Harmonia, 1950.
Sobre o Lado Esquerdo, 1968.
Entre Duas Memórias, 1971.
Trabalho Poético, 1982; latest ed. 2004. (Contains all the previous works.)
Guernica and Other Poems, tr. Alexis Levitin, 2004.
Micropaisaje, tr. Ángel Campos Pámpano, 1987.
Cristal en Soria, tr. Ángel Campos Pámpano, 1992.
Fiction in Portuguese
A Casa na Duna, 1943.
Pequenos Burgueses, 1948.
Uma Abelha na Chuva, 1953.
(Various translations of fiction titles have been published in French, German and Italian.)