Sara Raquel Duarte Reis Silva


Atlantic vocation, myths and legends in Portuguese literature for children and young adults:  the case of Manuel António Pina’s Os Piratas

Manuel António Pina’s vast and widely aclaimed oeuvre has been the object of studies appearing mainly in magazines and journals. His body of work ranges from chronicles to essays, poetry, drama and short stories. Diverse both in mode and in genre, Pina’s work assumes an audience that includes children, young adults and adults who share personal and aesthetic backgrounds. His first published work dates from the 1970s, with works like O País das Pessoas de Pernas para o Ar [The Country of Upsidedown People] (1973), Ainda não é o fim nem o princípio do mundo calma é apenas um pouco tarde [It is not yet the end nor the beginning of the world relax it’s just a little late](1974), Gigões & Anantes [Giets and Midjants] (1974), O Têpluquê [?](1976) or Aquele Que Quer Morrer [He who wants to die] (1978) and from early on Pina’s writing has been concerned with themes like the tension between opposites (e.g. life/death or appearance/essence), the volatile nature of the self, memory, childhood, time, the ambiguity of words and social critique.

Such themes are dealt with in a trademark literary style characterised by inventive resourcefulness that revels in irreverent word and sound play, a nonsensical and paradoxal tone that is often humorous. In their mixture of an individual language characterized by estrangement, an aesthetic interaction of different artistic modes and the exploration of connotative and manifold meanings, Pina’s texts often echo other literary voices, such as those of T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Ruy Belo and, more specifically, Fernando Pessoa, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, to name but the most significant.

Os Piratas [The Pirates] was published in Denmark in 1990. However, the first Portuguese edition, by Areal Publishers, came out during Christmas 1986 with illustrations and cover design by Manuela Bacelar, a well-known Portuguese artist, whose work has been the recipient of several prizes. In 2003 the text was published again, this time by a different publisher (Edições Asa) and with illustrations by a different artist – José Emídio. The original text, however, remained unchanged. A theatre adaptation of Os Piratas has also been published in the meantime (1997).

The origins of this novella can be traced back to a set of notes that Pina wrote as dialogues for a film by the Chilean director Raul Ruiz and Paulo Branco, a Portuguese producer. Set on the island of Madeira, the film was first made for television, divided into three episodes, and called Manuel na Ilha das Maravilhas / Manoel dans l’île des Merveilles [Manuel in Wonderisland] (1984), and in 1985 it was turned into a full-length feature, Les Destins de Manoel [Manuel and his Fate].

Pina explains these connections in a note to the 2003 edition of the text: “Os Piratas, along with other texts, was the result of my involvement in a wider project (which eventually folded) related to a film by Raul Ruiz. I’ve kept the name of the character because it is also my name and because the story has a first person narrator, despite the fact that, as far as I know, the great wide world and myself are the only islands I’ve ever inhabited.” (Pina, 1986: 45).

The title of Os Piratas highlights the nature of the multiple characters that the reading of the text will reveal as oppositional forces to the endeavors of Manuel, the protagonist.. That this is a novella of character is evidenced by both the title of the story and the titles of its ten chapters, a fact that is further emphasized by their actions, the development of the story and the very nature of the narrator.

It is, moreover, the title that first grounds this work in a particular context framed by Portuguese history and culture, symbology and literary memory. It is therefore expected that the text will deal with such themes as maritime adventures (e.g. the perils of piracy, shipwrecks, male protagonism associated with female longing, uncertainty, etc) or travel literature.

The story is told in the first person: “My name is Manuel and I live on an island, or an island lives in me, I am not sure, an island surrounded by sea and fog, but not so much surrounded as filled with it. I am eight years-old. Or I was 8 once. Maybe I am a grown-up now. It’s been so long! All this is hard to understand. I don’t understand it myself. Sometimes I think maybe this happened to someone else, somewhere else. In any case, I am the one who remembers this, so it must have happened to me. Or else it was all a dream I dreamt, or someone else did.” (Pina, 1986: 7). Uncertainty, confusion and incomprehension, allied to ambiguous temporality, memory and the contrast between the real vs dream, introduced at such an early stage in the narrative, set the tone for the whole text.. The words “a dream I dreamt, or someone else did” (ibid: 7), as well as others the narrator utters after the telling of the tragic shipwreck – “the darkness was such that, if I breathed, or moved, it felt like I was someone else inside of me. (…) It sounded like my voice, speaking outside of me and within me, simultaneously, as if it were both me and not me.” (ibid: 17) – allow the density of the character’s psychological state to be revealed. As the story progresses, Manuel is revealed as a lonely, fearful figure – “I felt very lonely, and filled with fear” (ibid: 8) –, immersed in indecision, doomed to not being able to tell between what he lived and what he dreamt, the ultimate example of what Arnaldo Saraiva has termed “the inconsistency of the self” (Saraiva, 1993: 14) and of what Álvaro Manuel Machado believes to be the most recurrent themes in Pina’s writing, the “indeterminacy of the self” (Machado, 1996: 382). The theme of the double, as pointed out, for example, by Manuel João Gomes (1987) and José António Gomes (2000), runs through the whole story, from the essence of the main character to the action itself. From the opening lines of the story, Manuel is split into Manuel and Robert, the English boy who disappears in the shipwreck. Maybe they are two sides to the same person, and the old fisherman is, for Manuel, the double of his neighbour who emigrated to the US and never returned.

As far as space in The Pirates is concerned, space which in Manuel’s mind is blurred, an island whose precise location is uncertain, this is the setting for several significant events: it is Manuel’s formative space, where connections with the self are manifold; it is the place where his father leaves from and a place of waiting for many, not least his mother; it is the place where tragedy occurs - the shipwreck which will eventually lead to the arrival of Ana and Lady Elizabeth; and it is the place where the two youngsters meet and cement their relationship. It is thus that in The Pirates, the symbology of the island, a space usually associated with isolation and adventure, is partly subverted, for in this text, it cannot be read as a place of “refuge where consciousness and will come together to escape the assaults of the unconscious” (Chevalier e Gheerbrant, 1994: 374). On the contrary, the island stands highlighted as a privileged space for the discovery of the self, a place “turned onto itself”, where the characteristics described early on by Manuel reinforce this role. It is on this island of fog and silence and darkness, a mysterious setting, that Manuel listens to the echo of his own self and struggles with himself, with that which is intimate, confusing, disturbing and perplexing. In this case, the island space is prone to an evident anthropomorphic treatment. All the vagueness, the fog, the smoky and crepuscular landscape evoked by the multiple use of words like mist, fog and haze lend a strongly symbolic meaning to the story, which includes ideas of uncertainty and indistinction (Chevalier e Gheerbrant, 1994: 470) as well as an “intermediate zone between reality and unreality” (Biedermann, 1994: 258). Despite the scarcity of references to the place, it is possible to gather information about both the island and the small village where Manuel lives. Here the physical and the semantic intersect in movements like going up vs going down and interior vs exterior; and potentially symbolic elements like the house and the window are operative. Whereas the space for interiority mostly coincides with Manuel’s house, and particularly his bedroom, the space for exteriority includes several elements related to nature, such as cliffs, rocks and the beach, which act as settings for encounters between Manuel and the Other. Such is the example of the first encounter between Manuel and Ana on the Penha cliff (Pina, 1986: 32) and that of the return of the old fisherman, and his meeting with Manuel on the beech. (ibid: 40). Manuel’s home, on the other hand, is constructed as a microcosms of protection, refuge, isolation, intimacy and, often, escape from the real, a space he returns to constantly. The semantic and symbolic value of the window – open in the first and ninth chapters but closed in the fourth – evokes the connection with the outside and “openness to air and light” (Chevalier e Gheerbrant, 1994: 382).

Time in The Pirates is a retrospective process that runs through the whole narrative; the analeptic form the discourse takes establishes a certain distancing that relies on the memory of the narrator, which inevitably results in a recollection of the past that is often diffuse and highly emotive. The events told by Manuel take place in a relatively short period of time that ranges from sometime in a farther past “a night in June” (Pina, 1986: 8), develops “a few weeks before Christmas” (ibid: 10), “on Christmas Eve” (ibid: 29) and “the morning after” (ibid: 30) and finishes on a day towards the “end of Christmas holidays” (ibid: 32). Ellipses are used at certain stages in the telling of the story to abbreviate the narration. At other times, the narrator takes special care in including brief narrative segments, often taking place in the past and often things he didn’t actually witness, but heard about, that help to understand the story. Such is the case with the episode told in the first chapter about an old neighbour who left for America and never returned, an episode that is telling of Manuel’s feelings about his own father’s departure. In the third chapter Manuel says: “I remembered hearing about other shipwrecks and of riches washed ashore” and adds “I had heard people saying that it was a big ship, bound to come back with big load. I remembered being told that, many years ago, the islanders and the inhabitants of neighbouring islands would light fires and lighthouses at night to elude approaching ships, leading them to smaller islands and shallow waters, so they would get wrecked, and later people could collect their cargo and wrecks on the beach". (ibid: 14). While not contributing directly to the action of this story, this episode adds factual information about procedures that can be attested to by historical documents. The alternating references to day and night create a succession of light and darkness that is reflected in psychological terms for, as a rule, daylight and dawn coincide with moments of epiphany and of encounters between Manuel and the Other, whereas night time, with its suggestion of silence and solitude, coincides with sleep or vigil, dreams, and encounters with himself. Night thus becomes a privileged time for questioning and searching for truth as well as for searching for his inner self, an encounter with his loneliness. The subtle confluence of  present and a past that is recalled in bracketed asides, along with the ongoing indefinition as far as time is concerned – “on a night”, a few weeks”, one day”, “one afternoon”, emphasise the ambiguity of Manuel’s story and highlight the psychological aspect of the narrative.

The highly economical treatment given to the identity of characters also supports the ambiguous nature of the story and emphasises the aura of mystery to be found throughout. Who is Manuel really? Who is the old fisherman? And Robert? Not only is Manuel uncertain about his age, but the story he tells – apparently lived by himself – often carries the shadow of doubt – “A long time ago (…), I – I think it was me (….) – got up (…). They were talking about me, they seemed to be talking about me.” (Pina, 1986: 8) –, all of which places the discourse in a highly subjective register, attested by the fluidity of memory and the narrator’s struggle to reconstruct events objectively. In The Pirates, reality and fiction, history and imagination are always framed by memory in their perpetual interchanges.

Memory, an ideological and thematical axis dealt with exhaustively in Pina’s writing for adults (e.g. K’s Papers and The Books) is, in The Pirates and in That which the eyes can see or Adamastor (a play that works as a part of a diptych along with the theatre version of The Pirates) the ultimate subject of the story. But in The Pirates, memory is always connected with the oneiric. For Manuel, memory seems to emerge like “a field of psychological ruins, a pile of memories” (Bachelard, 2001: 94), surrounded by fog, dipped in fear, mixed with dreams, in a significant materialization of the expression “the memory of the dream” (Seixo, 2004: 18), the title of an essay by Maria Alzira Seixo (2004). Manuel dreams “on the limit of history and legend” (Bachelard, 2001: 95), living in a corset, his head suffocating with history, certain myths, many fears, anxieties and stories for which he can’t find the solution. For Manuel, from memory, that fluid and slippery place, nothing appears clear, in the same way as Pina write in K’s Papers: “The matter of memory is undefined and insecure, and in it, as in life (and life is probably just memory), events and emotions, images and projections are blurred, and its origin isn’t always possible to recognise clearly, and its purpose most of the time escapes us. And yet, it is all we have, memory” (Pina, 2003: 7). The hypothesis ventured by Maria Alzira Seixo in the essay mentioned above, and particularly as far as the connections between dreams and memory are concerned, can be applied to The Pirates. Here it is also true that “the dream (or the nightmare) separates memory from its unequivocal, historicizing and chronological qualities and opposes the homogenous body of a tidy and stable past, provoking the confluence of different times, the confusion of the senses and the encounter with difference” (Seixo, 2004: 19).

Bachelard’s words “We dream while we remember. We remember while we dream” (Bachelard, 2001: 96) also reflect the way in which, in The Pirates, dreams and memory intersect, or in a wider context, how Pina experiences them. Evidence for this can be found in Pina’s statement about his involvement with the Pé de Vento Theatre Company: “In the mystery of memory dream and reality, the experienced and the not experienced are blurred. What we remember (…) is a second reality, a second life, done and undone by an interior and absolute matter that desire easily moulds.” (Pina, 1997).  

In that vast and fluid space that is memory, Manuel recalls a shipwreck, the leitmotiv of the story, an event that is closely connected to Portuguese history, and that in its telling is also a mixture of fact and fiction. In The Pirates, along with the descriptions of the landscape, which can partly create associations between a fictional space and a physical space, an empirical or even historic geography, and despite the absence of topoi of time and place, there are several allusions to Portuguese myths and legends, recognizable landscapes that are seminal for the functioning of the story. To this complex web of intertexts belong the myth of the discovery of the island of Madeira and the unfulfilled love story between Robert Machim and Ana de Harfet – also an important theme in Jaime Cortesão’s O Romance das Ilhas Encantadas [The Romance of the Enchanted Islands] (1926), for example –, which is mirrored, in Pina’s text, both in the English characters that arrive on the island where Manuel lives, and in the words of the old fisherman, towards the end of the story:

“- How do you know? Do you know Ana? And Lady Elizabeth?
- Ana? Oh, I’ve known her for a long time! You can’t imagine how long! And her fiancé, what’s his name? Robert… I know them well! So young! The first time… Oh, but that was so long ago…
- You know Robert also? – I was surprised. 
– Robert? I’d rather not talk about it… It was so long ago! She was pale! Robert carried her for she hardly had the strength to walk! So young, both of them, so unhappy…
” (Pina, 1986: 40). 

Also, in the reference to a cross kept in a wooden chest, an object Ana and Manuel recover from the Penha rocks, there seems to be a connection to the legend of the Cavalum. And it is still possible to spot another hypotext in the episode concerning the pirates’ attacks: the Azorean legend of the Coroa Real de Cedros [Royal Crown of Cedar], a story about a pirate attack on Faial island.

The theme of the voyage – here approached through Manuel’s father’s leaving, where aspects of Portuguese emigration are rehearsed, carrying the inevitable associations with lonely male journeys, female longing and mourning –, maritime ambivalence, shipwrecks, piracy and the figure of the old fisherman reminiscent of Camões’s Old Man from Restelo, are the basis for a reading of this text within a Portuguese historical and cultural frame. Moreover, there are elements that further suggest a specific geographical location, such as references to a trout nursery and the levadas (irrigation channels on Madeira), which also add local colour to the text.

Another important aspect of this novella is its inscription in the realm of the fantastic, which is a unique aspect of Pina’s work, insofar as this particular genre, along with science fiction, has been vey uncommon in Portuguese children’s literature since 1974. Manuel João Gomes, for example, notes a certain critical silence about this text and states that “the text alone is a faithful illustration of the great ideas of the Portuguese fantastic. It has mist, islands and boats, men and doubles” (Gomes, 1987: 4). Mystery, enigma and the unknown accordingly dominate the text, and are present, for instance, in the heavy wooden chest found by Ana and Lady Elizabeth on the rocks. This is an object that maintains a mysterious character (…) and is symbolic of a treasure chest” (Chevalier e Gheerbrant, 1994: 81). If initially it is something that the characters deposit some hope in, it soon becomes a disappointment, for, inside there was only “a wooden cross, like the ones you put on tombs” (Pina, 1986: 35). The effort put into carrying it from the rocks to the village, however, becomes significant in the relationship between Ana and Manuel. The union and the effort they share in this task, along with the later revelation of the contents of the chest, represent the initial step in their closeness. The fear of the kidnapping of the mother by the pirates – an aspect that is also inscribed in historical memory –, of the absence of the father and of the repetition of the catastrophe of the shipwreck during his voyage, and of death, a feeling associated with an omnipresent pathos, runs through the text and is insistently mentioned by Manuel: “I felt very lonely, and full of fear” (Pina, 1986: 8); “And I was afraid” (ibid: 40); “(…) I ran home full of fear” (ibid: 42). Death, in its different figurations, haunts the whole narrative. In the ninth chapter, the reference to the “wooden cross, like the ones you put on tombs” (Pina, 1986: 35),  Ana’s desire to go to the cemetery and the existentialist reflection she shares with Manuel mirror this important topos. Lastly, the very ending of the text is an open ending, leaving everything suspended, signaled by the three dots that close the novela. This ending reinforces the openness and the fluidity of the limits of the diegesis, the time and the characters that throughout the text have been alluded to with constant expressions of doubt and references to mist, silence and the night.

In conclusion, in The Pirates (1986), the sea, the fog, the islands and the boats, along with the building up of an atmosphere dominated by fear and uncertainty, come together in the construction of a narrative where the theme of the double is also dealt with (Gomes, 2000: 2), framed by the fantastic of a particular Portuguese type. In The Pirates, along with the absence of the patriarchal element (a common situation in the history of the Portuguese relationship with the sea) the leitmotiv of the diegesis and the shipwreck are elements that appear repeatedly, in Portuguese history, both in fictional and factual accounts. In this novella, Manuel António Pina deviates from his other Works, an aspect noted by Miguel Vázquez Freire: “In his last work—The Pirates—a brief and beautiful tale barely forty pages long, Pina moves in a somewhat different direction to that in his previous work. Humour and verbal byplay give way to a dense narrative poem about the power of dreams and the power of love”. I would add that it also says something about the Portuguese soul and history.


Sara Rachel Duarte Reis Silva (Portugal)

IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008

University of Minho (Braga – Portugal)


Referências bibliográficas:

  • BACHELARD, Gaston (2001). A Poética do Devaneio. São Paulo: Martins Fontes
  • BIEDERMANN, Hans (1994). Dicionário dos Símbolos. São Paulo: Melhoramentos.
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  • GOMES, Manuel João (1987). «Manuel e o seu duplo» in Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias, Nº 249, 13-19 de Abril de 1987, p. 4.
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