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The True Actor
Posted on Feb 14, 2014
“The True Actor”
”Portugal is traveling through a black tunnel where the light at the end is merely a train about to crash into it,” writer and critic Pedro Mexia said at a talk titled “Portugal 2013” that I attended in July at the Disquiet International Literary Program. Serendipitously, it was at this same conference that I was introduced to Jacinto Lucas Pires’ award-winning novel “O verdadeiro ator,” which was being translated into English—“The True Actor.” I say serendipitously because for me, nothing elaborates on Mexia’s statement better than Lucas Pires’ book. It depicts the country hurtling through darkness as it struggles to reconstruct itself amid crippling austerity measures.
On the surface, “The True Actor” is a cinematic tale set in present-day Lisbon about down-and-out actor Américo Abril, who is struggling to play the different roles his life demands. As a thespian, he’s trying to write a play for which he has an assortment of ideas that never make it to paper. As a husband, he is stifled and emasculated by his wife Joana’s success in a high-powered job with the hilariously bureaucratic title of “Deputy Assistant to the Regional-General Sub-director of the National Department of Quality Control of Olive Oil and Oil Mills.” As a father, he cannot stand his toddler’s brutish actions. Abril is incapable of understanding his son as a child, much less as an extension of himself. The boy, unfortunately, is named Joachim, ostensibly after his mother. As a son, Abril feels misunderstood by his parents who are physically and emotionally removed from his reality.
His clumsy existence drags on until he has the chance to play his favorite part—the hopelessly delusional lover of Carla Bruna, the favorite prostitute of Portuguese politicians. But then Bruna is mercilessly and mysteriously murdered, leaving Abril as the prime suspect in an investigation that is both corrupt and absurd from its inception. At exactly the same time, he gets the acting break of his life: a part in a Hollywood film titled “Being Paul Giamatti.” Caught in a crime drama, he is forced to play yet another unwelcome, unsuitable part as his life unravels. A grotesque narcissist to the very bitter but “happy” end, he is absorbed with self-pity and idleness as the rest of Portugal tumbles into action.
Behind the tragicomic anti-hero’s journey, as hilariously absorbing as it is, lies the core of “The True Actor”: the heartbreaking story of an austerity-era Portugal reeling from an economic crisis that has baffled its historically melancholy population to the point of revolt.
In 2011, three years after the financial crisis began, Portugal received a €78 billion ($111 billion) bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European Union that inevitably came with strings attached: cut spending, raise taxes and find a way to survive despite it all. A series of disasters followed: a historic rise in unemployment to 19 percent, the closing of thousands of small businesses, and a joblessness rate of 43 percent among those under 25, leading to a brain drain as the educated youth of Portugal searched for work anywhere but home.
And then there was the outrage. The same year Portugal was, for lack of a better term, “bailed out,” the country began to stir with civil unrest. The Movimento 12 de Março—also called the Geração à Rasca (or precarious generation) protests—brought a week of demonstrations against austerity measures and the economic crisis. It was the largest Portuguese movement since the Carnation Revolution that culminated on April 25, 1974, when a military coup ousted the Estado Novo authoritarian regime established by António de Oliveira Salazar.
That brings us back to Américo Abril, a name that combines two very disparate elements: the United States’ individualist empire and Portugal’s April 25 revolution. Abril struggles throughout the novel to reconcile the two conflicting approaches to life. America’s attempt to be the perfect capitalist democratic utopia is in direct opposition to Portugal’s aspirations to build a functioning welfare state.
Abril’s narcissism, amplified by his grand first name, keeps him safely within the bubble of his bourgeois routines. Whether it is having lunch with his questionable, arrogant friends, soliciting Bruna for an afternoon tryst, or daydreaming of becoming a star, Abril has little time for self-reflection, let alone insight into the devastating situation his country faces. And yet, by accident, after one of his leisurely activities in Lisbon’s center, the anti-hero is swept into “a multitude united by the force of a NO.” Confused by the mass of people brought together by their discontent, Abril tries to point out the superficial beauty that he believes should pacify them as it does him—the “pretty” jacaranda flowers blossoming overhead—but the crowd is unmoved. The heartbreaking descriptions of relatable human desolation leading to acts of despair could be lifted straight out of Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” and any other number of classics:
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