There are a number of impressive Portuguese writers that English-speaking readers are likely to be familiar with: Camoes, Eca de Queiroz, Saramago and Pessoa. Beyond these four one might encounter readers who have read Portuguese-language Brazilian writers such as Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado, but it is very unlikely if the reader in question is not a Lusophone that they will have heard of Sophia de Mello Breynor Andresen. This is a great shame that I am delighted to see Young Dedalus remedying with a beautiful collection of her fairy tales, expertly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.
Andresen was born in Porto in 1919. Her patronymic comes from a Danish ancestor who settled in the city of her birth. From an affluent family, her father purchased the house and grounds of what is now the Porto Botanical Garden. The house and grounds proved influential on her work in which magical gardens abound. A very religious woman, she was nonetheless passionately opposed to the nominally Catholic authoritarian Salazar regime. After the 1974 Carnation Revolution she became a member of parliament for the Socialist Party. But it is of course her poetry and her story collections for children that have her assured her great reputation in Portugal.
It would be very difficult for me to get through this piece about Andresen without mentioning another author with a very similar name. And I think it is a mark of the delight and beauty of this story collection that it does not suffer comparison with the work of the famous Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that the similarity of their names and work is the perfect way of catching hold of people’s attention and turning them onto her fairy tales.
The collection has eight stories, including her best-known longer pieces, ‘The Fairy Oriana’ and ‘The Forest’. I think one of the best ways to give a sense of Andresen’s unique talent will be to give a summary of one of my favourite stories in the collection: ‘The Bronze Boy’.
The setting is a country house and its extensive gardens. They are beautiful gardens with orchards, parkland, a hothouse, rose gardens and all sorts of flower beds. In one such flower bed are the gladioli. And it is a gladiola who is one of the central characters. Gladioli we are told are snobbish flowers. They look down their noses (or however flowers express condescension) at poppies and sunflowers, deem roses sentimental, adore tulips and despise the lily-of-the-valley.
The people of the house are having a party and the gardener is specifically instructed to pick gladioli. Our protagonist gladiola hears the beauty and fashionable status of his fellow flowers being extolled and looks forward to being picked and seeing this party. The lady of the house unfortunately has a change of heart and no more gladioli are picked. In the evening when the party is in progress, he visits an old oak that overlooks the windows of the house. He asks to watch from a high branch of the oak. As they look in through the windows and observe the people appearing on the balconies the oak talks to the gladioli about the beauty and fashion of the people. The gladiola is inspired to hold a party for the flowers.
The oak reminds him he must ask permission of the Bronze Boy first. During the day flowers cannot move and must stay in their position, but at night they can move about freely and talk. Night is also when the Bronze Boy comes to life and he is master of the garden at night. He is a statue who lives on a little island at the centre of a pond in a quiet verdant corner of the garden. The gladiola asks him if they can have a flower party. At first the Bronze Boy is unwilling, saying that if the flower had more sense and was less like the lady of the house, he would recognise the morning dew, the sunlight and the evening breezes, all these are a party. The only true parties are the simple pleasures of life. The Bronze Boy relents however when he sees just how downcast the gladiola has become. Delighted that they are going to have a party the gladiola organises a grand ball for flowers committee.
After much discussion and bickering over who is going to be on the committee and who is to be invited, the flowers and the Bronze Boy also pick the location for the ball, The Glade of Plane trees, a beautiful spot in the centre of the park surrounded by tall trees, with a small lake over at one end with a romantic pergola beside it. As Butterflies are dispatched with invitations, the flowers discuss who is to be in the orchestra, they settle on a on a motley orchestra of nightingales, cuckoos, woodpeckers, blackbirds, frogs and toads.
Having agreed location, guests and music all that is left is to decide decorations. It is decided to surround the lake with glow-worms and to put something in the empty stone vase. Much to everyone’s chagrin it is suggested to fill the vase with a decorative flower. The Bronze Boy suggests that if people put flowers in vases at their balls, the flowers should put a person in their vase for their ball. After dismissing the lady of the house as a candidate the Bronze Boy suggests putting Florinda in the vase. Florinda is the seven-year-old daughter of the house. She is adored by all of the flowers who think she is very like a flower herself, with her sunflower coloured hair, her violet eyes, her white camellia hands and her carnation red lips.
The following evening a nightingale sings at Florinda’s window and invites her to the flower’s ball. She is met by the Bronze Boy who explains that he and the flowers come to life at night. Taking her place in the vase she watches many beautiful flower-dances, in which the flowers combined to form myriad shapes and patterns. The gladiola is particularly concerned the tulip whom he admires so much has not yet arrived. When she eventually arrives, he is disappointed that she passes over him and dances with others instead. He is cheered up by the Bronze Boy and Florinda who both deem this the nicest party they have ever been to.
Suddenly all the flowers fall silent because another voice in the garden is heard, it is the voice of the cockerel. They all rush to be back in their places, soon leaving Florinda alone with the Bronze Boy. Florinda asks the Bronze Boy many questions trying to prolong her happiness, but she is so tired that she soon falls asleep. He carries her through her bedroom window and lays her on her bed. The next day Florinda can scarcely think about anything but the night-time ball. She tells her friends of what happened at school, but they only laugh at her for her dreaming. After school she goes to the Bronze Boy in the garden and talks to him, but he neither speaks nor moves. Disheartened she concludes that her friends are right and that it was simply a dream.
Many years have passed and Florinda has all but forgotten the flowers’ party. One evening her mother asks her to carry a basket of eggs to the cook’s house, who lives on the far side of the gardens. Crossing the gardens night soon falls. A beautiful moonlit May night. She remembers once again the flowers’ ball and how beautiful it was. The night itself, so beautiful and sweet smelling almost seems like a fantasy. She almost feels the flowers are coming to life again. She wanders to the little pool with the island on which the Bronze Boy stands during the day. He comes to life and asks her if she remembers him and the ball. She replies:
“’Of course, yes, now I remember everything. But I thought it was all a dream. I thought that everything I’d seen was too extraordinary to be true.’
‘Both the extraordinary and the fantastic are true. Because there are two countries, the night is one country and the day is another.’
‘What a marvellous place the world is!’ said Florinda.
And she gave her hand to the Bronze Boy and together they walked through the garden.”
It is a beautiful tale that manages to conjure memories of how vivid imagination can be for us when we are still very young. When we can imagine the flowers coming to life at night or the cutlery having parties in the kitchen when we have all gone to bed. There is also a gentle humour in such ideas as the flowers putting the little girl in the vase. It is a shame that the story is not better known as it would serve as great inspiration for musicians and animators. One can imagine a child reading the tale purely for its story full of magic and wonders while an adult will pick up a gracefully presented truth about the value of imagination, that it does not conflict with, but complements the more practical and realistic side of light, as the night complements the day.