The village that finds us… before the light erases the darkness

This is not the story of a character or characters, but of a village, «a place so far away that it had no name, just a town»

«To be a writer is to belong to a cursed species capable of spreading through fissures. It's having your chest full of intruders, faces, voices and shadows yearning for peace, while you face uninhabited leaves, over and over again, in search of the phrase that will unravel the entire world».

This is not how «Before the light erases the darkness», by Telmo Mendes, begins, but these lines in the second chapter made me believe that I would read the book about the life of a writer. I was wrong. This is not the story of a character or characters, but of a village, «a place so far away that it had no name, just a town».

For a moment, «Galveias», by José Luís Peixoto, came to mind, but that's a whole other story.

The village is not just a setting where the sea is heaven and hell. This space, which is more than a setting, reflects the state of mind of the inhabitants, involves them and guides their emotions. In this fictional place, which could be a village on the Alentejo coast, Telmo Mendes allows his characters — incomplete beings, full of flaws and doubts — to live. All characters move towards a resolution. Some will achieve redemption, others will not.

There are remarkable characters like Marco Marreco and his great passion for poetry books; Gertrudes, Pito Arisco and Maria do Assobio — the old viperines who never waste a moment to distill poison; Gabriela — victim of domestic violence, who seeks to forget the past in anonymity; a priest who lost his beloved and remains in confrontation with God and Love; and Maria do Mar — from whom the sea stole her husband.

These and other characters breathe their daily lives in the three hundred pages of this book and generate emotion and empathy in the reader due to their humility and imperfections. Even Filipe, Inês's boyfriend (the owner of the bookstore in that place at the end), and eventual antagonist, it is explained, is aware of himself and, for that reason alone, wins us over.

I could talk about an excessive number of characters, lives, but they are all relevant and contribute to the energy of the village. The characters are the place. It is the death of an inhabitant, named Raúl, that brings people together and forces them to turn inward and toward each other. Encounters reinforced, later, by the great storm, which will shake the place and the hearts of those people.

The atmosphere and the fantastic tone are the glue of this novel, which involves everything and explains nothing, in an unreal, distant setting, but at the same time so Portuguese.
In a fresh writing style, which shows a departure from the norm of what is currently written in Portugal, it highlights prose with a poetic verve, a mixture of fantasy and philosophical brushstrokes, transversal to the entire work. The careful, thoughtful language, the polished phrase, reminds us of aphorisms. It is also portraitist, humanizing writing, with many appointment happy between words that had never met.

There is a certain revival of the Baroque style, in its contradictory, taste for paradox, the contrast between light and darkness, which the title of the book itself denotes. Each complete sentence is almost a small story, like this example, among many others: «The present is by definition that place situated between the lost moment and the fascination of continuity». It is a work that invites long reading, not because of the complexity of the narrative, but because of phrases that exude tenderness and ontological reflection, page after page. I believe that the loving, poetic and musical soul of Telmo Mendes lives between the lines.

«Little by little, life passes, the pain becomes older and more tidy, distant like everything that once was», but there are books that remain in the memory. This is one of them.


Author: Analita Alves dos Santos is an author and literary mentor


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