So Many People, Mariana

by Maria Judite de Carvalho, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

reviewed by Katy Dycus

So Many People, Mariana collects Maria Judite de Carvalho’s first four books of short fiction, all of which deal with various forms of entrapment. In story after story, Carvalho presents characters desperate for escape, yet consistently punished for attempting to break their chains. Written between 1959 and 1967, during the last decade of the thirty-five-year Salazar regime in Portugal, Carvalho’s stories reveal parallels between the domestic and national dramas of that era.

Carvalho writes in “Miss Arminda” that “at home, she [Arminda] spent all her time devouring novels as if those fictitious worlds gave her some compensation for her otherwise empty existence.” Carvalho herself provided this compensation for her (mostly female) readership during a cultural milieu in which their existence may have felt similarly vacuous.

Like Mariana, the titular protagonist, Carvalho depicted men and women as islands even when surrounded by friends or lovers. Her characters’ lives are sculpted by disappointment, isolation, and trauma, polished by the passage of time. Now, Carvalho’s gripping themes stand to gain wider appeal, thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s superb English translation.

The book’s theme of loneliness, for instance, will resonate with readers, especially given the continuing surge of loneliness post-pandemic. Carvahlo picks up on this level of human suffering—many of her characters are alone in one way or another, by choice or by chance. In the title story, a young Mariana is whimpering in her bed from loneliness. Her father says, “We’re all of us alone, Mariana. Alone, but with lots of people around us. So many people, Mariana! And not one of them can help us. They can’t, and wouldn’t want to if they could. Not a hope.” Reading this passage I was reminded of the words of US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in his report on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”: “You can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections.”

Precise and unsentimental, Carvalho’s prose offers little comfort. In “A Misunderstanding,” we find a woman named Luisa waiting, alone, for a former lover. (In Carvalho’s fiction, “waiting” and “wasting” are interchangeable.) “Perhaps, for women,” Carvalho writes, “love is more flexible and more passive than it is for men. They do the choosing, and we almost always come to like whoever chooses us.” In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, with which Carvalho would have been familiar while living in Paris, she writes that, for a woman “to love is to relinquish everything for the benefit of a master.” With this in mind, Carvalho upends the common narrative and pushes back against futility: she offers Luisa real agency in deciding whether or not to reject her suitor Duarte’s advances. However, ultimately rejecting Duarte offers Luisa no rewards.

As a newspaper editor, columnist, and talented caricaturist, Carvalho produced searing social criticism. She exposed a repressed society straining under the weight of the Salazar regime and the unforgiving edicts of the Catholic Church. She witnessed important shifts in women’s domestic and professional roles as the 1960s got under way. The result, in her short stories, is a portrait of women in which they feel isolated from one another and even from themselves—a state of affairs that serves the interests of men.

Carvalho found that the news that made headlines was nearly always bad news. Her fiction offers no respite from the harsh realities of life. In stories like “Sunday Outing,” we find a male protagonist whose life is cut short after merely thinking about a brief reprieve from daily life. With a blend of madness, memory, mockery, and humor, Carvalho limns the traumas of her protagonists’ lives.

Her characters are often driven to do the unthinkable in a last-ditch effort to salvage a piece of themselves. In a story entitled “Miss Arminda,” the female protagonist, a victim of sexual assault, is incapable of having a family due to past trauma, and her solution is to kidnap a child at the park. We later learn that one of the policemen who comes to arrest her is the perpetrator of her assault from years before. Carvalho reminds us again and again that justice may be “served,” or cruelly enforced—but seldom in favor of the weak, who are at the mercy of the powerful.

Even the natural world commiserates with the human condition, in all its bleakness and suffocating emptiness. In “Seascape with No Ships,” Carvalho writes: “the night was sometimes vast. And dense. So dense that the white cockerel could scarcely pierce it with his crowing. The air was no longer air, but an interval between things, empty space; it was made up of a thicker material, larger and more present and almost unbreathable.” Carvalho’s genre, the short story, is a perfect vessel for bringing readers close to difficult subjects—so close you can hardly bear the proximity.

Published on April 2, 2024