If you’re interested in world literature and Portuguese culture specifically, this reading list is for you. As every reader knows, reading is to travel far and wide where we cannot physically go. I hope this list guides you on a wonderful journey into the lusophone world.
While selecting titles for this list, I had the English reader in mind so you’ll only find the English translation titles listed. The Portuguese speaking world includes countries around the world but I’ve decided to organise them not by country but by publication date. There are a few works from prior centuries but I’ve tried to focus on 20th century literature.
Luís de Camões > The Lusiads < 1572
“First published in 1572, The Lusiads is one of the greatest epic poems of the Renaissance, immortalizing Portugal’s voyages of discovery with an unrivalled freshness of observation. At the centre of The Lusiads is Vasco da Gama’s pioneer voyage via southern Africa to India in 1497-98. The first European artist to cross the equator, Camoes’s narrative reflects the novelty and fascination of that original encounter with Africa, India and the Far East. The poem’s twin symbols are the Cross and the Astrolabe, and its celebration of a turning point in mankind’s knowledge of the world unites the old map of the heavens with the newly discovered terrain on earth. Yet it speaks powerfully, too, of the precariousness of power, and of the rise and decline of nationhood, threatened not only from without by enemies, but from within by loss of integrity and vision.” (GoodReads)
Camilo Castelo Branco > Love of Perdition < 1862
“Perhaps the height of Portuguese romanticism, Amor de Perdição (Love of Perdition) is a Portuguese Romeo and Juliet. Simão Botelho and Teresa are hopelessly in love, but their families are rivals in Viseu. When Teresa’s father, Tadeu, discovers their love, he shuts her in a convent. But, while trying to see his beloved, Simão kills Baltasar, and eventually condemned to death. The sentence is commuted to 10 years of service in India, but before the sentence is executed, both Teresa and Simão die of broken hearts.” (GoodReads)
Machado de Assis > The Alienist < 1881
“A classic work of literature by “the greatest author ever produced in Latin America.” (Susan Sontag)
Brilliant physician Simão Bacamarte sacrifices a prestigious career to return home and dedicate himself to the budding field of psychology. Bacamarte opens the first asylum in Brazil hoping to crown himself and his hometown with “imperishable laurels.” But the doctor begins to see signs of insanity in more and more of his neighbors. . . .
With dark humor and sparse prose, The Alienist lets the reader ponder who is really crazy.” (GoodReads)
Eça de Queirós > The Maias < 1888
Lima Barreto > The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma < 1911
“‘The seed of madness exists in all of us and with no warning may attack, overpower, crush and bury us… ‘
Policarpo Quaresma – fastidious civil servant, dedicated patriot, self-styled visionary – is a defender of all things Brazilian, full of schemes to improve his beloved homeland. Yet somehow each of his ventures, whether it is petitioning for Brazil’s national language to be changed, buying a farm to prove the richness and fertility of the land, or offering support to government forces as they suppress a military revolt – results in ridicule and disaster. Quixotic and hapless, Quaresma’s dreams will eventually be his undoing.
Penguin Classics: Funny, despairing, moving and absurd, Lima Barreto’s masterpiece shows a man and a country caught in the violent clash between illusion and reality, hope and decline, sanity and madness.” (GoodReads)
Mário de Andrade > Macunaíma < 1928
“Announcing a major literary event: here is the first translation into English of a landmark precursor of Latin American magical realism, which has informed the work of contemporary writers from Garcia Marquez to Salman Rushdie. Macunaima, first published in Portuguese in 1928, and one of the masterworks of Brazilian literature, is a comic folkloric rhapsody (call it a novel if you really want) about the adventures of a popular hero whose fate is intended to define the national character of Brazil. “Inventive, blessedly unsentimental,” as Kirkus Reviews has it, and incorporating and interpreting the rich exotic myths and legends of Brazil, Macunaima traces the hero’s quest for a magic charm, a gift from the gods, that he lost by transgressing the mores of his culture. Born in the heart of the darkness of the jungle, Macunaima is a complex of contradictory traits (he is, of course, “a hero without a character”), and can at will magically change his age, his race, his geographic location, to suit his purposes and overcome obstacles. Dramatizing aspects of Brazil in transition (multiracial, Indian versus European, rural versus urban life), Macunaima undergoes sometimes hilarious, sometimes grotesque transformations until his final annihilation and apotheosis as the Great Bear constellation in the heavens.” (GoodReads)
Graciliano Ramos > Barren Lives < 1938
“A peasant family, driven by the drought, walks to exhaustion through an arid land. As they shelter at a deserted ranch, the drought is broken and they linger, tending cattle for the absentee ranch owner, until the onset of another drought forces them to move on, homeless wanderers again. Yet, like the desert plants that defeat all rigors of wind and weather, the family maintains its will to survive in the harsh and solitary land. Intimately acquainted with the region of which he writes and keenly appreciative of the character of its inhabitants, into whose minds he has penetrated as few before him, Graciliano Ramos depicts them in a style whose austerity well becomes the spareness of the subject, creating a gallery of figures that rank as classic in contemporary Brazilian literature.” (GoodReads)
Jorge Amado > Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon < 1958
“Ilhéus in 1925 is a booming town with a record cacao crop and aspirations for progress, but the traditional ways prevail. When Colonel Mendonça discovers his wife in bed with a lover, he shoots and kills them both. Political contests, too, can be settled by gunshot… No one imagines that a bedraggled migrant worker who turns up in town–least of all Gabriela herself–will be the agent of change. Nacib Saad has just lost the cook at his popular café and in desperation hires Gabriela. To his surprise she turns out to be a great beauty as well as a wonderful cook and an enchanting boon to his business. But what would people say if Nacib were to marry her? Lusty, satirical and full of intrigue, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is a vastly entertaining panorama of small town Brazilian life.” (GoodReads)
Clarice Lispector > The Hour of the Star < 1977
“The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. As Macabéa heads toward her absurd death, Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator—edge of despair to edge of despair—and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.” (GoodReads)
António Lobo Antunes > The Land at the End of the World < 1979
“Considered to be António Lobo Antunes’s masterpiece, The Land at the End of the World–now in a new and fully restored translation by acclaimed translator Margaret Jull Costa–recounts the anguished tale of a Portuguese medic haunted by memories of war, who, like the Ancient Mariner, will tell his tale to anyone who listens. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, Lobo Antunes weaves words into an exhilarating tapestry, imbuing his prose with the grace and resonance of poetry. The narrator, freshly returned to Lisbon after his hellish tour of duty in Angola, confesses the traumas of his memory to a nameless lover. Their evening unfolds like a fever dream, as Lobo Antunes leaps deftly back and forth from descriptions of postdictatorship Portugal to the bizarre and brutal world of life on the front line. The result is both tragic and absurd, and belongs among the great war novels of the modern age.“ (GoodReads)
Moacyr Scliar > Max and the Cats < 1981
“Max Schmidt grew up in the stockroom of his father’s fur store, cloaked among the foxes, minks, and leopards, hiding from the glaring eyes of a stuffed tiger atop the wardrobe. It is here he dreams of travelling to distant lands; and here, as a young man, he begins an affair with the store’s married clerk. Forced to flee when his lover’s husband discovers the affair and denounces Max to the Nazi secret police, Max steals away to Hamburg, where he takes passage on a freighter destined for disaster. When the ship founders somewhere off the coast of South America, Max is trapped in a dinghy with a hungry jaguar. Max believes his days are numbered-until he washes ashore on the coast of tiny Porto Alegre, Brazil, prepared to begin anew in the tropical clime. But when Max discovers his next-door neighbor is a Nazi hiding from persecution, he finds that for the first time in his life, he is the master of his own destiny, ready to take matters into his own hands…” (GoodReads)
Fernando Pessoa > The Book of Disquiet < 1982
“Fernando Pessoa was many writers in one. He attributed his prolific writings to a wide range of alternate selves, each of which had a distinct biography, ideology. and horoscope. When he died in 1935, Pessoa left behind a trunk filled with unfinished and unpublished writings, among which were the remarkable pages that make up his posthumous masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, an astonishing work that, in George Steiner’s words, “gives to Lisbon the haunting spell of Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague.”Published for the first time some fifty years after his death, this unique collection of short, aphoristic paragraphs comprises the “autobiography” of Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s alternate selves. Part intimate diary, part prose poetry, part descriptive narrative, The Book of Disquiet is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century.
Fernando Pessoa, one of the founders of modernism, was born in Lisbon in 1888. Most of Pessoa’s writing was not published during his lifetime: The Book of Disquiet was first published in Portugal in 1982.“ (GoodReads)
João Ubaldo Ribeiro > An Invincible Memory < 1984
“A family saga spanning nearly 400 years, this absorbing epic novel lays bare the soul of the Brazilian nation. Whaling, war, macumba, slavery, murder, cannibalism and Brazil’s struggle for independence add momentum to Ribeiro’s lyrical, effusive, sonorous, serpentine prose laced with a touch of magic realism something of a cross between Melville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (The author himself has rendered the fluent translation.) At the center is Amleto Ferreira, a 19th century paterfamilias and conniving bookkeeper who defrauds a baron of his wealth; Amleto’s ladylike, long-suffering wife Teolina; and their children, among them a priest, a romantic poet and a soldier. A bestseller in Brazil, the novel graphically portrays the terrible cruelty inflicted by whites on blacks, mulattos and Indians; the lives of these native peoples unfold in dozens of intertwined stories. The relationship between Merinha, patient, Penelope-like servant girl, and runaway slave Budiao is moving. Also memorable are 100-year-old Great Mother Dadinha and Maria da Fe, a bandit warrior who converses with birds and seeks special power from a sorcerer’s charms. Catapulting his tale into the 1970s, journalist Ribeiro ( Sergeant Getulio ) creates a stunning portrait of a people who, though outwardly mirthful, are still not free.” (GoodReads)
Mia Couto > Sleepwalking Land < 1992
““On almost every page of this witty magical realist whodunit, we sense Couto’s delight on those places where language slips officialdom’s asphyxiating grasp.”—The New York Times Book Review on The Last Flight of the Flamingo
“The most prominent of the younger generation of writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa, Couto passionately and sensitively describes everyday life in poverty-stricken Mozambique.”—Guardian (London)
“Quite unlike anything else I have read from Africa.”—Doris Lessing
As the civil war rages in 1980s Mozambique, an old man and a young boy, refugees from the war, seek shelter in a burnt-out bus. Among the effects of a dead passenger, they come across a set of notebooks that tell of his life. As the boy reads the story to his elderly companion, this story and their own develop in tandem. Written in 1992, Mia Couto’s first novel is a powerful indictment of the suffering war brings.” (GoodReads)
José Saramago > Blindness < 1995
“From Nobel Prize–winning author José Saramago, a magnificent, mesmerizing parable of loss.
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides her charges—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and their procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. As Blindness reclaims the age-old story of a plague, it evokes the vivid and trembling horrors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with a powerful vision of the human spirit that’s bound both by weakness and exhilarating strength.“ (GoodReads)
Lídia Jorge > The Painter of Birds < 1998
“The story of a daughter’s longing for her absent father and her determination to piece together the past and the future. The setting of this extraordinary novel is an old farmhouse in Portugal-a house far enough from the Atlantic not to hear the breaking waves during a storm but near enough for the walls to be corroded by the salt in the air. With most members of her large family having left the hardship of life in this landscape of sand and stone for jobs in faraway places, a young woman struggles to piece together her past from the widely varying stories she’s been told. Left behind by a free-spirited, feckless father, a seducer with a rare gift for drawing, she is raised by her uncle who has married her mother. The only memories of her father’s two brief visits are the echoes of his footsteps on the stairs leading to her room. The only signs of him are letters from the widest reaches of the world-letters accompanied by brilliantly colored drawings of exotic birds. The daughter longs for her father and, as she grows up, she is determined to find him and uncover the truth.
Brimming with astute and exquisite characterizations, this strikingly lyrical novel evokes the atmosphere of rural Portugal in a changing world and explores the timeless themes of family, independence, and the often painful experience of emigration.” (GoodReads)
José Luís Peixoto > The Implacable Order Of Things < 2000
“Winner of the José Saramago Literary Award. In an unnamed Portuguese village, against a backdrop of severe rural poverty, two generations of men and women struggle with love, violence, death, and—perhaps worst of all—the inescapability of fate. A pair of twins conjoined at the pinky, a 120-year-old wise man, a shepherd turned cuckold by a giant, and even the Devil himself make up the unforgettably oddball cast of The Implacable Order of Things. As these lost souls come together and drift apart, José Luís Peixoto masterfully reveals the absurd, heartbreaking, and ultimately bewitching aspects of human nature in a literary performance that heralds the arrival of an astoundingly gifted and poetic writer.” (GoodReads)
Luis Fernando Verissimo > Borges and the Eternal Orangutans < 2000
“Jorge Luis Borges is the hero of this literary whodunit by one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers.Vogelstein is a loner who has always lived among books. Suddenly, fate grabs hold of his insignificant life and carries him off to Buenos Aires, to a conference on Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story. There Vogelstein meets his idol, Jorge Luis Borges, and for reasons that a mere passion for literature cannot explain, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation that involves arcane demons, the mysteries of the Kaballah, the possible destruction of the world, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee’s theory of the “Eternal Orangutan,” which, given all the time in the world, would end up writing all the known books in the cosmos. Verissimo’s small masterpiece is at once a literary tour de force and a brilliant mystery novel.” (GoodReads)
Miguel Sousa Tavares > Equator < 2003
“It is 1905 and Luis Bernardo Valenca, a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor and owner of a small shipping company, is revelling in Lisbon’s luxurious high society. But his life is turned upside down when King Dom Carlos invites him to become governor of Portugal’s smallest colony, the island of São Tomé e Principe. Luis Bernardo is ill-prepared for the challenges of plantation life – used to a softer urban existence, he is shocked by the conditions under which the workers labour. But with the English closing in on São Tomé’s cocoa plantations, the island’s main means of survival, Luis Bernardo must endeavour to protect the island and its community.” (Goodreads)
Paulo Coelho > Eleven Minutes < 2003
“Eleven Minutes is the story of Maria, a young girl from a Brazilian village, whose first innocent brushes with love leave her heartbroken. At a tender age, she becomes convinced that she will never find true love, instead believing that “love is a terrible thing that will make you suffer. . . .” A chance meeting in Rio takes her to Geneva, where she dreams of finding fame and fortune. Maria’s despairing view of love is put to the test when she meets a handsome young painter. In this odyssey of self-discovery, Maria has to choose between pursuing a path of darkness—sexual pleasure for its own sake—or risking everything to find her own “inner light” and the possibility of sacred sex, sex in the context of love.” (GoodReads)
Gonçalo M. Tavares > Jerusalem < 2005
“One morning late in May, between three and six A.M., a group of lonely men and women wait to be brought together, like the elements in an equation. Ernst Spengler is about to throw himself out his window. Mylia, terminally ill and in enormous pain, goes out to visit a church. Hinnerk Obst, who’s always been told by the neighborhood children that he looks like a murderer, walks the streets with a loaded gun. As these characters are manipulated and brought together, a world of violence, fear, pain, and uncertainty is portrayed, where human nature itself, and the mechanisms determining our actions, our fictions, and the elements of our imagination, are laid bare. Jerusalem is a terrifying and grimly humorous summation of the possibilities and limits of the human condition at the beginning of the 21st century.
Hailed by José Saramago as the best writer of his generation and a likely future winner of the Nobel Prize, Dalkey Archive is proud to introduce Gonçalo M. Tavares and his breakthrough novel.” (GoodReads)
José Eduardo Agualusa > A General Theory of Oblivion < 2012
“The brilliant new novel from the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls. Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers. A General Theory of Oblivion is a perfectly crafted, wild patchwork of a novel, playing on a love of storytelling and fable.” (GoodReads)