The Women in Translation month, August, on Twitter was a great success. I managed to tweet a link to a different post every day. There are 48 posts on Bookword blog featuring fiction translated from a foreign language. I tweet a link to one of these every Thursday.
This is the first post about a novel written in Portuguese on this blog. It has an intriguing title, which makes me ask: Who or what are the empty wardrobes? Why are they empty? What is their significance in this writer’s novel?
The story of Empty Wardrobes is set in Portugal in the 1960s. It follows the widow Dora Rosàrio, and is narrated by her friend, Manuela.
Even after ten years of widowhood, she still wore black, and, given the long full skirts she wore and the sensible shoes, she looked more like an off-duty nun than what she actually was – a career widow. (16)
Dora Rosàrio’s husband died young and without making any provision for his wife and daughter after his death. Consequently she must beg from her friends and acquaintances. They feel sorry for her, but their sympathies are wearing thin but at last she gets a job in an antiques store. In the 1960s Portugal political life was dominated by the right-wing dictator Salazar, and society was dominated by old fashioned ideas about women, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Women ‘s lives were shaped by the supremacy of family and husband. Dora was following the idea that widowhood is more or less the end of days for a woman.
Duarte Rosàrio is elevated to something like a saint by Dora. She even has a picture that she kisses. But we are introduced to an alternative version of Duarte Rosàrio: a lazy and unskilled man with no particular qualities. We should take note of the epithet:
J’ai conservé de faux trésors dans des armoires vides. [I have saved false treasures in empty wardrobes] Paul Éluard
With the job in the antiques store Dora is now able to support herself and her daughter, but she does not come out of her isolation until her mother-in-law imparts a secret she learned about Duarte at the end of his life. Everything changes. Dora suddenly begins to take care of herself, buy and wear nice clothes and becomes more outgoing.
The presence of the narrator is not prominent at first, but she gradually muscles in to more and more of the narrative. The narrator, Manuela, has a rich lawyer lover who comes to the antiques shop (nicknamed the Museum by daughter Lisa) and is impressed with the reformed Dora. Eduardo invites her to his house in Sintra where they sleep together. On the way home they are involved in an accident. When Eduardo comes to check on Dora, he meets Lisa and within a week they decide to marry.
The empty wardrobes are perhaps the narrator Manuela and Dora, who both lost their partners? Or else the mother-in-law who spilled the beans, or Lisa who uses everyone despite being beautiful, or the two men in Dora’s live: Duarte and Eduardo. I’m inclined to believe that primarily it was the men who hold the emptiness of women’s lives in their power in Portugal at that time.
Maria Judite de Carvalho
Maria Judite de Carvalho was born in 1921 and died in 1998. This is the first of her novels to be translated into English.
Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, published in Portugal in 1966. Two Lines Press published the English translation in 2021. 183pp. Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
JacquiWine recommended this book in January 2022, and I am grateful that she brought it to my attention.