In her latest book, Mary Soderstrom – inspired first by the veritable world map of imported foods she saw at the Portuguese grocer’s as a child and then by a trip to Portugal decades later – sets her sights on the “little country with great ambitions.” Soderstrom’s story is a much-needed addition to the genre of historical non-fiction, in which Portugal remains largely unrepresented compared with its European neighbours.
Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure touches upon many elements of Portugal’s culture and history, including slavery, religion, literature, architecture, and music. We find traces of memoir and travelogue here, as well as an overview of Portugal’s greatest heroes and moments. Soderstrom begins the narrative by reflecting on the Portuguese-American family that left a clear impression on her in her youth in California and, to close the book, the author writes about her search for the family’s descendants. Maritime exploration is an ever-present theme. Soderstrom describes the vegetation on the coast of Southern India where fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers settled and integrated, and casually notes the schedule of a village ferry in the Azores, inviting us to enter the scene. As with the best books of this genre, readers become acquainted with historical narratives beyond the oft-told.
One fascinating example of such a historical narrative relates to the eighteenth-century prime minister, the Marquês de Pombal. “To much of the old aristocracy ... Pombal was an upstart, a near-nobody where blood and lineage were concerned,” writes Soderstrom, who nonetheless calls him the “right man for the job.” Pombal was a forward-thinking, well-connected, worldly statesman who executed significant social and economic reform in Portugal and rebuilt Lisbon after a catastrophic earthquake. Soderstrom nicely juxtaposes the latter accomplishment (including new approaches to city planning) with the modern development of Brasília.
In general, the author manages to segue from the historical to the modern quite seamlessly. Soderstrom chronicles the human suffering in Portugal’s slave trade alongside the country’s steadfast exploration in Africa and the Americas, including Brazil. She delivers both sides of this imperial tale with depth, providing the staggering numbers of souls sold as well as a heartbreaking description of a new shipment of slaves. Equally detailed are the author’s accounts of the Portuguese incursions into South India and South America, and the resulting racial mix when “the men took partners wherever they found themselves.” Soderstrom considers the contemporary fallout of these past methods of spreading the empire, and wonders about the competing characterizations of modern- day interracial Brazil: is it a racist society with a persistent colour-class correlation or a meritorious melting pot?
There is a tremendous amount of information here. What is missing, however, is a feel for the people of Portugal. Soderstrom is a great observer but never seems to engage directly with the lifeblood of the culture she is so interested in, nor with the present-day Portuguese. She remains more researcher than reporter, and the book suffers slightly as a result. At the same time, Soderstrom’s zeal for the past can be infectious.
Given Portugal’s extraordinary history and the dearth of commercial literature on the subject, it would have been a real pleasure to have had more to read. While parameters must be extremely tough to draw with such a subject, there were some topics introduced that could have been more fleshed out: Portugal’s relationship to other European countries, its educational system, and the 1974 Carnation Revolution (made more intriguing given current civil resistance movements in the Middle East), which restored democracy in Portugal. What we do get is a well-researched, well-told story, the result of enthusiasm rather than birthright.
Joni Dufour is a freelance editor and writer and the fiction editor of carte blanche www.carte-blanche.org/.