John Emerson has put online (at Idiocentrism) a transcription and translation of a few passages from what sounds like a remarkable book, the sixteenth-century Portuguese Menina e Moça. Here is Emerson’s description:

The main narrator is doubly exiled, first from her childhood home, and then from the place where she was raised. Seemingly abandoned by her lover, she has come to a lonely place to live out her few remaining years. There she meets another exile, a mysterious older woman who refuses to tell her own tragic story but lets slip that it concerns her son. Most of the book consists of stories which the mystery woman had heard from her father and which she retells to the first narrator — stories of events happening at the desolate place of their exile, which had once been inhabited by noble knights and their ladies, of whom the relics were still occasionally uncovered by the simple shepherdesses who now inhabited the land.
The second narrator might be a ghost (the supernatural is evident throughout), and it is even possible that she and everything she says are projections of the first narrator’s disturbed mind: “In a strange way, I was transported to a place where my own pain was reenacted before my eyes in others’ lives”. The stories told by the second narrator are also all stories of doomed exiles, and when one character (Aonia) seems to end up attaining a mediocre happiness, that is not treated as a happy ending — and the first narrator occasionally reflects that she herself seems to be seeking and insisting on unhappiness, rather than trying to avoid it.

The book is outspokenly feminist — the older woman blames most of women’s troubles on men, and especially on men’s devotion to the pursuit of honor in war. Menina e moça‘s author of record is a man, Bernardim Ribeiro, but it has been speculated that his name has been appropriated to provide cover for a female author. In the book there are passages describing events which were unlikely to be part of male experience — a woman dying in childbirth, the womenfolk spinning, weaving and telling tales during the long winter nights, and a young girl’s first stirrings of love. My conjecture is that perhaps whoever wrote the story built it around the two poetic pieces by Ribeiro which are included in the text, and that as a result the whole book has been ascribed to him.

What it reminds me of is The Saragossa Manuscript, the 1813 Chinese-box novel written in French by Polish aristocrat and eccentric Jan Potocki, made into an amazing movie (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, directed by Wojciech Has) in 1964. Any Portuguese-speakers out there inspired to try a full translation?


  1. Damn. If I had world enough and time…
    … and good enough Portuguese.

  2. John Emerson says

    I even thought of the Saragossa Manuscript, which was a cult movie whan I was young late in the previous millenium. Menina e Moca doesn’t have much comedy, though.

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