Ballad of Dogs’ Beach

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Ballad of Dogs’ Beach

by José Cardoso Pires


A novel set in Lisbon and also in and around the nearby town of Vereda in late 1959 and also 1960; published in Portuguese (as Balada da Praia dos Cães) in 1982, in English in 1986.


Inspector Elias Santana investigates the murder of Major Luis Dantas Castro in April 1960, a few months after his involvement in an abortive military coup against the fascist dictator Oliveira Salazar. The investigation not only reconstructs events leading up to the assassination but also unmasks the political, social, and moral degradation endemic to both Portugal’s fascist regime and its opposition parties.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in São João do Peso, in central Portugal on February 2, 1925, José Cardoso Pires moved to Lisbon with his family while he was still a child. He completed his secondary education there and went on to study mathematics at the Faculdade de Ciências (1943–45). During this period, Cardoso Pires became a member of a leftist-leaning party, the Movement of Democratic Unity, and after its extinction he joined the Portuguese Communist Party, which he abandoned in 1974, two days after the Portuguese Revolution, in order to experience the country in its bourgeois freedom. However, he remained a staunch defender of Marxist ideology until his death on October 26, 1998. A half century earlier, during the 1940s, Cardoso Pires published his first short story as well as many essays in literary magazines and Os Caminheiros e Outros Contos (1949; Travelers and Other Stories), his first book. After the publication of his controversial (because of the subject matter) second volume of short stories, Histórias de Amor (1952; Love Stories), the author is briefly detailed by the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police. Many other literary works followed, bringing the author great critical acclaim and commercial success, including O Anjo Ancorado (1958; The Anchored Angel), O Hóspede de Job (1963; Job’s Guest), and O Delfim (1968; The Dauphin). Winning renown as one of the greatest Portuguese narrators of the twentieth century, Cardoso Pires remained faithful not only to his Marxist ideology but also to his desire to write fiction that reflected upon Portugal and the Portuguese. This is certainly true in Ballad of Dogs Beach, a novel that reflects deeply about the climate of repression, the abuse of power, and the lack of freedom prevalent during the almost 50 years that the fascist dictatorship lasted in the country.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

From the microcosm to the macrocosm

Ballad of Dogs’ Beach fictionalizes real events that occurred in late 1959 and in 1960. To be more precise, the work is inspired by the 1960 political murder of captain Almeida Santos, an individual who had been implicated a few months before in an abortive military coup against the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. In the novel, the name of captain Almeida Santos has been changed to that of major Luis Dantas Castro. Major Castro is killed by his companions, Filomena or Mena (the Major’s lover), an architect (Fontenova), and an army corporal (Barroca) after several months of isolation in the Vereda house where they all took refuge after the three escaped from the Forte da Graça, Elvas, where they had been imprisoned for their participation in the attempted military coup. Their plan was to carry out another coup, but isolation, the climate of fear in the house, and the fact that all four individuals were suspicious of each other’s movements and had to depend on outsiders to carry out the intended coup created the oppressive conditions that led to the assassination of the Major by the others. After Major Castro is murdered, the others bury him in Mastro Beach, whose name is changed to Dogs’ Beach for two reasons: a dog discovers the body and the secret police whose Portuguese acronym, PIDE, stands for International Police for the Defense of the State, are known as dogs. The secret police, it was said, had the capacity to trace or track down any enemy of the Portuguese State and could smell, at any distance, all suspicious activities through their very keen sense of smell, just like dogs.

The author uses a real event for a long dissertation on the general situation in Portugal. He focuses on political intrigue, the climate of fear, censorship, moral and social degradation, oppression and repression, abuse of power, and conspiracy theories to impart an objective image of the fascist period during the dictatorship of Salazar (1932–68). The Portuguese subtitle of the novel means “Dissertation on a Crime,” which indicates that the author is researching a particular issue: a crime. However, he is not really researching the assassination of Major Dantas Castro; in effect, he is researching a different type of abomination, the political and ideological crime committed by some Portuguese for repressive ends of denying freedom of expression to the citizens of the country. The events surrounding the political murder of the Major serve as a paradigm for the situation of the country as a whole. In other words, the author is investigating much more than a murder of an opposition figure; in reality, he is investigating the murder of a whole country and its citizens. Accordingly, the situation, the conditions, the social, political and ideological climate described in Ballad of Dogs’ Beach bear a great resemblance to the real situation and conditions present in Portugal in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

António de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal

A late 1950s and early 1960s travel poster in English from TAP (better known nowadays as Air Portugal), created to attract tourists to Portugal, used the following slogan: “Portugal, Europe’s best-kept secret. Fly TAP.” In a sense, such a slogan was emblematic of the Portuguese society of that era. Closed to foreign influences, the society was controlled and repressed by several paramilitary associations as well as the secret police. At the helm was an austere, tough-minded dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, who governed with an iron hand, ready to punish all forms of dissidence and any apparent attack on the sanctity of a fascist state built on policies that were in essence anti-liberal, anti-communist, and anti-democratic.

The emergence of authoritarian rule in Portugal dates to 1926, when a military coup put an end to parliamentary rule in the country. The military takeover enjoyed, at least initially, widespread popular support due to the instability and chaos of most economic, political, financial, and social institutions and also the inefficient bureaucracy prevalent during the period of the First Portuguese Republic (1910–26). Salazar did not really come into the picture until 1928, when he was asked to become finance minister to improve the country’s economic situation. Within a short period of time, Salazar had put the country’s finances in order and as a result many Portuguese thought that he possessed messiah-like qualities that would extend to the political sphere. Several measures taken by the finance minister, a conservative technocrat and a professor of political economy from the University of Coimbra, led to a balancing of the books and to the accumulation of fiscal surpluses that would last until the 1960s. As Salazar’s power grew, he began to exert more and more influence over the affairs and the direction of the government. In 1932 he was appointed Premier, becoming the first civilian Premier since the military takeover in 1926. Salazar would be de facto leader of the country until 1968 when the chair he was sitting on collapsed and he was knocked into a coma from which he never recovered. He eventually died in the summer of 1970. Marcelo Caetano took over the reigns of power, but he himself was knocked off this pedestal by the military during the Revolution of April 25, 1974. He had shown intransigence in dealings with the freedom fighters battling for independence in Portugal’s African colonies and had grown estranged from the majority of officers in the army, who were tired of waging what they believed to be unwinnable wars in Africa.

The overseas empire

Salazar governed with a heavy hand, surrounding himself with many paramilitary organizations and other associations that controlled all aspects of Portuguese life and, in the process, denied basic freedoms to most citizens in the country. On the surface, the country seemed to run smoothly without dissent; tightly controlled, the press did not report internal friction. Yet there was plenty of turmoil in Portugal, especially during the 1950s and early ’60s when the mythic image of Salazar as savior no longer held sway over the country’s citizens. Much of this turmoil was brought about by Portugal’s continued defense of its colonial heritage and its need to hold onto the colonies “whose agricultural and mineral resources were a strong factor in Portugal’s financial strength after World War II” (Herr, p. 9). The constitution of 1932, which had created the Estado Novo (New State), a corporative and authoritarian type of system where political realities were subordinated to socioeconomic priorities, declared that it was the state’s function to promote the moral unity and establish the juridical order of the nation. Salazar’s intention in creating a new constitution was to regenerate Portugal through a wellordered economy. An appendix, the Colonial Act of 1930, also authored by Salazar, was attached to the political constitution and approved by Portuguese voters in 1933. Article 2 of this Colonial Act proclaimed that it was of the organic essence of the Portuguese nation to carry out the historic function of possessing and colonizing overseas dominions and civilizing the indigenous populations contained therein. In the 1950s and ’60s, the state modified the Colonial Act in view of the decolonization being undertaken by other colonial empires, but the modifications failed to change the basic direction taken by the New State. The word colonies was changed to overseas provinces; the focus shifted to a full-scale integration and assimilation of indigenous Africans; the Africans gained a form of citizenship, albeit a discriminatory citizenship, since their rights as citizens were less than those for white Portuguese; and the government declared that Portugal was a multiracial, multicultural, and multicontinental nation. However, these changes were mostly cosmetic, for external consumption, given the changing international climate regarding colonialism. The colonial status of Portuguese Africa was being debated at the United Nations, the eastern countries, especially Russia and China, were arming freedom fighters in the Portuguese colonies, and the old allies, such as the United States and Great Britain, had begun to question the continued colonial presence of Portugal in Africa. In spite of all these challenges, Portugal held firm to its economic interests in Africa and to its commitment to develop the colonies in order to safeguard those economic interests. The colonies, believed its statesmen, existed for the benefit of Portugal and not vice-versa; anything that happened in the colonies would take place on Portuguese terms.

The indigenous populations in the Portuguese colonies did not buy into the rhetorical propaganda of the New State. They knew they were considered inferior by whites and that they were being exploited in the name of a suspect civilizing mission, which, far from acknowledging their own traditions, sought to impose Portuguese Christian civilization. The idea that Portugal was the last defender of Western civilization in their area did not hold much sway over the African peoples either, and armed unrest began in earnest in 1961. Although there had been many signs that the empire was already crumbling, the launching of armed revolts in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in the early 1960s signified that Portugal as a colonial empire would not be able to hold on much longer to its overseas possessions. Armed insurrection was the beginning of the end, an end that finally came in 1975 with the official independence of five African countries.

As noted, the empire had been striking back at Portugal for quite some time. Many of the modifications to the Colonial Act of 1930, made in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, responded to pressures placed upon Portugal by indigenous populations clamoring for greater autonomy and eventual self-determination at a time when France and Britain were already freeing their colonies. Whatever measures Portugal took to ameliorate the colonial status of its colonized peoples in Africa, they amounted to much too little too late. Uprisings were occurring everywhere, especially in Sâo Tomé (1953) and Guinea-Bissau (1959) in Africa. Other actions, such as strikes, were also taking place. During the 1950s, many nationalist movements aimed at reasserting the authority of indigenous cultures began to appear. However, the first real challenge to the empire came from India in 1961 when Indian troops invaded Goa and seized the colony from the Portuguese. More embarrassing for the nation was the fact that Portuguese troops did not really put up much of a fight to defend the possession from the invading Indian forces. Other serious threats to the Portuguese colonial empire began to be posed by nationalist forces in Africa. In early 1961, “perhaps 200 armed Africans attacked the prisons where MPLA prisoners were held, and other targets of strategic significance in Luanda” (Robinson, p. 109). A white backlash followed the attack, and also organized massacres occurred. A few months later in Angola, a war of liberation broke out that would last until 1974 and soon afterwards other colonies, following Angola’s example, also erupted into revolt against the imperial power.

Turmoil on the home front

If in the overseas colonies Portugal was involved in bloody campaigns to retain its empire, back at home, even in the 1950s, there were already major signs of dissolution of Salazar’s New State. Although isolated revolutionary activities involving the Communist Party and the military had occurred since the New State was created, these activities increased considerably during the 1950s and even more so during the 1960s with the outbreak of the colonial wars. Indeed, “internal resistance was more or less continuous throughout the dictatorship, manifested mainly in attempted military coups, democratic electoral movements, and labour unrest” (Kayman, p. 31). Although the Portuguese corporatist apparatus enjoyed strong support from Western allies, which allowed Portugal to become a founding member of NATO and gave tacit political support to the regime’s defense of its colonial patrimony mainly because of its anti-communist stance, the New State had to deal more and more with internal resistance that eventually lead to its disintegration in April 1974.

Salazar had “instituted an ‘organic’ vision of society and tried with a certain perseverance to use all the ideological and social control instruments within his reach to bring it about: administration, corporatism, school system, state propaganda, local elites, and the Church” (Herr, p. 100). The strategy limited the autonomy of the economic elite and kept its members in line. However, the Portuguese were becoming restive with a government to which they initially lent strong support because it had regenerated the Portuguese economy. The government no longer enjoyed such support because the economy had not kept pace with the rest of Europe, and people were tired of simply rubber stamping the official candidates put forth by the regime’s only permitted political party, the National Union. There was no economic or political movement in the country. There was only economic stagnation and the concentration of wealth in a few hands. Refusing to industrialize, Portugal had also remained mainly an agricultural country, at least until the 1960s, when Portuguese investors began to diversify into heavy industry, and when foreign investors began to pour capital into the country.

Given the concentration of political and economic power in a few hands, no large bourgeois class had developed to carry out counter-revolutionary activities against the New State. Most of these activities were generated by military officers, who occasionally would revolt against the government. This changed during the 1950s and the ’60s, with the staging of a number of popular demonstrations against the government, many strikes to demand better living wages and better working conditions, and other political actions on university campuses and in factories. Many of these were instigated and/or organized by the Communist Party, the only organized opposition party at the time. The regime responded by imprisoning, exiling, and otherwise punishing the demonstrators and strikers, making an example of them to others who may have wanted to follow in their footsteps. The military, as mentioned above, carried out several attempts to overthrow the government. The most serious was in 1961, when General Júlio Botelho de Moniz, the Defense Minister, in conjunction with other military figures, conspired unsuccessfully to overthrow Salazar in order to liberalize the country and to resolve through negotiations the conflicts that were just arising in Portuguese Africa. Moniz was arrested, other conspirators were detained and Salazar took over the Ministry of Defense. In reality, this was the last important attempt at a coup d’état until the 1974 Revolution.

Two other episodes that served to call into question the authority and the very legitimacy of the New State and its leader Oliveira Salazar need to be mentioned. The first refers to the 1958 elections and the second to the hijack of the Portuguese liner Santa Maria by Captain Henrique Galvão in 1961. In 1958 Humberto Delgado ran as an opposition candidate against the National Union’s hand-picked candidate, the future President of Portugal, Admiral Américo Tomás. Although Delgado was an extremely popular candidate, customary electoral fraud assured the election of the government candidate. He protested the election and asked for the resignation of Américo Tomás to no avail, and a coup, which had been planned in expectation of electoral fraud, did not materialize. However, the government learned its lesson well. Salazar “put an end to the threat of a constitutional coup provoked by popular presidential campaigns by altering the Constitution: in the future, the President would be chosen by an electoral college, which he would be able to control through the National Union” (Kayman, p. 41). Another episode that inspired additional pressure for the overthrow of fascism was the hijack of the ocean liner Santa Maria on January 23, 1961, the date of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States. The mastermind behind the whole operation, Henrique Galvão, chose this particular date for several reasons: to obtain maximum international exposure for his action, to publicize his report on the colonies (calling for a political solution to the unrest in Africa), and to humiliate Salazar. The many activities and actions against both fascism and the ensuing colonial wars should be regarded as an expression of general discontent on the part of the Portuguese that culminated with the military takeover of the government in 1974.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Ballad of Dogs’ Beach begins with a medical report of an unknown man’s body found by a scavenger dog in the sand dunes of Praia do Mastro, approximately 100 meters from the road, on April 3, 1960. Most of the report focuses on the state of the male body and the extensive damage done to it by the several bullets that had perforated it. There are also references on the report to the age, sex, and height of the individual. Indeed, the picture that one gets from reading the report is that the crime was unusually violent. It is not until a few pages later that the reader finds out that the victim is an ex-army officer, Major Luís Dantas Castro, a man who had participated in an abortive military coup the previous year, but who had been at liberty since December 1959 when he escaped from prison.

Ironically, the body was found close to an Air Portugal “popular travel-poster in English: PORTUGAL, EUROPE’S BEST KEPT SECRET. FLY TAP” (Ballad of Dogs Beach, Pires, p. 3). The poster sets the stage for the investigation that follows, with Elias Santana from the Criminal Investigation Department in charge. His purpose is not to find out who the perpetrators of the crime were, since the three are identified at the very beginning of the novel. They include Lieutenant Fontenova (an architect) and Corporal Barroca, two military men who were also involved in the attempted coup and had escaped from prison with the Major. The third perpetrator, the Major’s lover Filomena (Mena) joined the group later in their hideout in Vereda, the place where the three men had taken refuge after their escape from prison. Elias Santana’s intention is to find out the whys and the wherefores of the political assassination of the Major since the hypothesis of a sex crime has already been discarded. The theory of a political assassination is doubtful too because the Major has been murdered by his supposed friends and political sympathizers, men who shared his political convictions. They are all sworn enemies of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar and his fascist regime. Things are never


Although Ballad of Dogs’ Beach has all the trappings of a detective novel, the storyline is not extremely complex or complicated. Cardoso Pires is not really interested in all the minute details of the crime, or in disentangling all the clues or following the scent of the affair. What the author strives to pin down is the psychological climate, the fear factor, and the political and social context that makes the crime possible. Therefore, the plot is never highlighted, in the novel, the identities of both the murder victim and the perpetrators of the crime are divulged at the very beginning. The author is not primarily interested in satisfying the curiosity of readers or in maintaining a climate of suspense to gain their attention. The aim instead is to rouse their social and political consciences. If Ballad of Dog’s Beach has many embellishments of the detective novel, it is simply because the author is aware that the Portuguese have cohabited for so long with all the paraphernalia of a police state that they can easily understand the detective novel’s nuances and parameters. The tranquility of the Portuguese, thinks Cardoso Pires, is due to the police, who serve as their alibi for irresponsibility (Ferreira, p. 4).

what they seem to be. Like the travel poster that takes advantage of travelers’ sense of curiosity about the unknown—about Portugal as a secret—to attract them to the country, the novel starts out trying to get readers’ attention by playing on their sense of curiosity about the different possibilities and motivations behind the crime. As readers progress through the novel, they discover that appearances are deceiving. The real Portugal is indeed a well-kept secret, not what it seems to be. On the surface, Portugal appears to operate on a stable foundation of political, economic, and social order; nationalism; morality; peacefulness; trust; unity; harmony; respect for the law and for others; sanctification of the nation and its rules; and the family as the basis for the state. The surface, however, masks a hellish interior fraught with criminality, fraud, abuse, fear, terror, repression, untrustworthiness, lies, censorship, corruption, political intrigue and deception, rampant sexuality, chaos, social degeneration, and general immorality. Heaven and hell seem to coexist in Portugal: heaven is the face it presents to the outside world and to its people; hell is the true reality of life in the country. This hellish dimension is the main focus of the novel. The author’s intention is to show that beneath Portugal’s apparently normal façade lies a pathological dimension that is hidden from the outside world but which the reader uncovers through the reading process.

Two broad, interwoven narrative strands can be identified in the novel. The first, based to a great extent on genuine newspaper articles, police communiqués, police interrogation reports and other documentation from the archives of both branches of the Portuguese police, the PIDE (International Police for the Defense of the State) and the GNR (the National Republican Guard), deals with the murder of Major Dantas Castro and all the events leading up to it, reconstructed mainly by Elias Santana’s interrogations of Filomena/Mena. In other words, the first narrative strand is the murder story, which has a documentary feel to it, given its basis in real events of 1959 and 1960 in Portugal. The second narrative strand is essentially fictional. It focuses on the investigator Elias Santana; a human variety of the police attack dog, he will do anything to uncover every last sordid detail of the murder of Major Dantas Castro and those implicated in his murder. The novel follows Elias Santana on his many walks through Lisbon, especially his night strolls through the parks, streets, bars, nightclubs and cabarets of the capital, shares his keen observations of the multiple dimensions of a complex and decadent city, and discloses his unseemly behavior as he interrogates Filomena, his scheming, his perversity and immorality. Revealed too is his sickly and sleazy environment at home, where he keeps a lizard imprisoned in a cage as a pet and for which he scavenges the streets and parks of Lisbon to find nourishing insects. The second narrative strand provides ample and objective information about the social, political, and historical elements necessary to glean a full understanding of Portuguese society during the late 1950s and early ’60s under the repressive dictatorship of Salazar. In reality, this may be considered a third narrative line, one that is inferred from, and grows out of the narrative focus on Elias Santana and his life.

After the initial appearance of the Major’s body and the disclosure of the perpetrators of his murders, Elias Santana’s mission is to piece together all the details of the events leading up to the murder and its aftermath, when the three murderers tried to flee the country and were apprehended. The first person to be apprehended was the Major’s lover, Filomena. Consequently, most of the story is narrated from the perspective of Elias as he subjects the woman to a series of interrogations. These interrogations allow the inspector to pull all the different strands of the story together and come up with the evidence to prosecute the three criminals. He necessarily relies on her, since he does not have access to Barroca and Fontenova. PIDE is in charge of their case because of the political nature of the crime.

Elias believes that he can break down all of Filomena’s defenses by invading her personal territory, including sleep. During his many interrogations, he moves his chair inch by inch towards her “[p]retext by pretext, question after question, until suddenly he was breathing ‘police’ all over her. Invasion of personal territory” (Ballad, p. 39). But, as Elias discovers, the closer he gets, the less she talks. He also learns that she is not interested in collaborating with the enemy, the government, and will not succumb to interrogation. She talks because she wants to escape from herself, not because she is forced to speak. Elias reaches this conclusion after he finishes his investigation. The two men and the woman kill the Major because the three want to reach freedom through the killing. The situation in their hideout had become constrictive and oppressive because of the Major’s actions, especially his abuse and humiliation of the others and his frequent clandestine outings supposedly to organize a new coup against the fascist regime. The others were overcome by fear. More than fear of the Major, they feared themselves. However, it is the constant surveillance of the others by the Major, as well as his presence and insanity, that creates their internal fear. Consequently, they decide to murder the Major. All assume responsibility for the crime by taking turns shooting him. However, the two men are the ones who dispose of the body. They ride for miles along the coast with the corpse crammed in the back seat of their car until they finally decided to bury it in Mastro Beach. The two men flee to southern Portugal, where they are finally apprehended by the police. They catch Mena in a hotel room in Lisbon, her suitcases packed, presumably for her flight from the country.


In real life and in the novel, opposition groups were quick to accuse the government of committing a heinous political assassination. They also defended vehemently their comrade, the Major, considering him a brave man, someone who had become politicized because he resented the subservience exacted from people by the fascist regime. But in fact and fiction, this comrade is neither a man of honor nor a man of dignity. He is a bully who uses his power to humiliate others and to abuse them physically as well as psychologically; as such, he is representative of many other authority figures in the Salazar regime. The fear of his three companions in Vereda house was real. They feared for themselves and, ultimately, they feared fear itself. The Major had become impotent both in his sexual life and also his political life, his actions in both cases not producing the expected results. Consequently, he had resorted to humiliation, abuse, and even torture of those he considered his subordinates in order to compensate for his lack of potency. Since he had become impotent he had been torturing Filomena by marking her body with cigarette burns. The skin on her backside, from waist to neck, “was patterned with the silver-grey raised scars of cigarette-burns. They were neat, and they were numerous—scales in a fishbone pattern the length of her spine” (Ballad, pp. 154–55). May be fear, in addition to impotency, played an important role in the Major’s actions too. Impotency too can be seen as a root cause for the behavior of his three companions. As Fontenova claims in a conversation he had with the author in 1980, a conversation that appears in an appendix to the novel, fear is extremely “constricting, since one’s equilibrium is shattered and one is no longer in balance with one’s external circumstances. Worst of all, this rupture will eventually make our reasoning entirely defensive; or for me it did. The reasoning of fear will undermine normal values until fear brings one to the point of murder.” (Ballad, p. 180)

Novel as metaphor for Portugal

Elias Santana combines his suppositions, inquiries, assumptions, deductions, conjectures, and interrogations with his personal fantasies to piece together the puzzle (murder) and solve all the mysteries surrounding the supposed political assassination of Major Dantas Castro, including the role that his companions play in the episode, as well as the manner by which they carry out the murder and bury the Major in the beach. In the process, the detective elucidates a much larger crime, that of the authoritarian state against its own people. There is a piece of the mystery missing from his investigation, a piece that the reader can easily retrieve through the reading of the novel in order to solve the mystery and make sense out of the novel: it is the history of a nation apparently at peace but really in political turmoil. The violent murder provides a medium by which the novel exposes the conditions under which the Portuguese were living in the 1950s and 1960s, a condition unbeknownst even to some in Portugal, who were not aware of the extent to which the government would resort to repressive measures, even violence, to silence internal or external dissidence. The surveillance going on all the time in the novel, the watchfulness of Elias Santana as he wanders through Lisbon, his looking through a peephole to spy on Mena’s moves, the torturous cigarette burns inflicted on her by the Major—all these details point to practices characteristic of the regime behind the scenes of the image projected to the world and Portugal’s own population. Likewise, the opposition would employ tactics similar to those used by the fascist régime. Coincidentally, the discourse of both the authoritarian dictatorship and the opposition were modeled on similar structures of order and top-down hierarchy. Questioning authority was not a sin that could ever be forgiven by either the government or the opposition.

The views expressed above can easily be inferred from Cardoso Pires’s narrative. In addition to the climate of fear and repression, there are many signs throughout the novel that indicate the country is morally and socially polluted. Reading the novel, one gets the impression that Portugal is a wasteland, a country without values intent on debasing its citizens and depriving them of their dignity. In a sense, the lizard in the glass cage that Elias Santana keeps at home and that depends on the insect scavenging instincts of the inspector for its survival is an appropriate metaphor for the country and its citizens. Elias regulates the temperature of the cage, just as the regime monitors the people, its caged animals, manipulating them to keep them in order, feeding them not with real nourishment or solutions to problems but with the equivalent of insects, with palliatives to forestall dissent. Among these palliatives are small increases in salary, semiannual banquets, and, sponsored by newspapers, the marriages of St. Anthony—marriages paid for by the daily newspaper Diário de Notícias, which would sponsor weddings and honeymoons of 200 to 300 couples annually on the condition that the brides are virgins and are poor. The conditions in the country had reduced the Portuguese to the status of animals during the dark period of fascism. The fact that the novel ends with three empty cages passing by Elias late in the evening, three “circus-vans, with no animals in them, only the keepers sprawling half-awake as they traversed deserted streets in the small hours, faces between bars and legs struck out” (Pires, p. 177) is an indication that Portugal is just a big cage that encloses all of its citizens in a climate of state terror experienced by most Portuguese during the period of fascism. Juxtaposed to the image of the caged men is another allusion to Portugal as Europe’s best-kept secret in a perfect ending to the novel. However, with Ballad of Dogs’ Beach the secret is finally out. Portugal in the 1950s and 1960s, as the novel suggests, is a country whose leaders, including the victim himself, Major Dantas Castro, are “intent on hiding their weakness and impotence behind a facade of control and domination” (Sapega, p. 179).

Sources and literary context

Although Ballad of Dogs’ Beach is based on real events, the author made many modifications to convey more precisely the social and political climate of the period. Many of the actual details were deliberately eliminated because the author deemed them too shocking to be part of his narrative. He felt quite strongly that if he had included certain documents, people would not believe that they were true. Consequently, he focused on the climate of fear, anxiety, lies, corruption, perversion, cages, and animals to portray Portugal as aptly as possible during the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Ballad of Dogs’ Beach fits neatly into the post-revolutionary narrative of Portugal. Many of these narratives use as their literary sources real facts and events from Portuguese history. After almost 50 years of fascism, replete with all the historical distortions and reinventions that are the hallmark of fascist discourse, Portuguese writers have felt a need to revisit their history in order to better understand the country and its people. The historical period that Cardoso Pires portrays diverges radically from the official history of the fascist period. It is a redefinition and an unmasking of the ideas and symbols of the fascist period, with the objective of exposing certain power structures that in the name of the state had systematically terrorized, abused, and repressed the citizens of the country. José Cardoso Pires, as many other contemporary Portuguese writers have done in the past two decades, uses history to present readers with alternative and contradictory evidence that confronts official historical discourse, in the process providing a more complete, less distorted vision of Portugal. The reconstruction of the past has in fact become one of the main currents of Portuguese post-revolutionary narrative. José Cardoso Pires, especially in Ballad of Dogs’ Beach and Alexandra Alpha, engages extensively in the revision and redefinition of Portuguese history.

Cardoso Pires has been associated with the later phase of the Neorealist movement in Portugal. Neorealism had its heyday during the 1940s and ’50s when the movement tried to serve as a revolutionary factor in Portuguese life through its production of artistic works directed at ending repression, classism, alienation, oppression, exploitation, and censorship. The initial Neorealist works attempted to portray, in almost documentary form, life under the fascist régime, but as the movement matured in the late 1950s and ’60s, its initial dogmatism was replaced by a preoccupation with innovative aesthetic solutions that stressed psychological and historical rather than sociological elements. The novels of writers such as Cardoso Pires, Fernando Namora, and Carlos de Oliveira are excellent examples of this maturation process. With the advent of the Revolution and finally the establishment of a parliamentary democracy in Portugal, the fascist period would continue to be fertile ground for writers. Since 1974, many literary texts have dealt with this bleak period of Portuguese history including José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and “The Chair,” Mário Cláudio’s Tocatapara Dots Clarins, Teolinda Gersão’s Paisagem com Mar e Mulher ao Fundo, and António Lobo Antunes’s Fado Alexandrino. However, unlike the Neorealist strain, these works focused mainly on uncovering the destructive and alienating tendencies of the myth-ridden word of fascism by exposing truths about, for example, the regime’s use, misuse, and abuse of past national glory.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

From dictatorship to post-Revolutionary turmoil

In 1982, when Ballad of Dogs’ Beach was published, Portugal was on its way, after a shaky interim, to becoming a stable Western European parliamentary democracy. Years of turmoil during and after the Revolution (1974–76) ended in the firm establishment of a representative, pluralistic government, which remains in place today. The transition from authoritarianism to parliamentary democracy was far from easy, though. In a short span of eight years, Portugal shifted from an anti-communist, anti-Soviet position to a non-aligned, third-world position during the revolutionary period, back again to a pro-European stance. This last phase would be followed by the integration of Portugal into the European Community in 1986 and its full incorporation into the Western European democracies.

Back on April 25, 1974, when the armed forces marched into Lisbon and put an end to the almost 50 years of the Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano fascist dictatorship, their action caught many by surprise. Although the revolution succeeded without bloodshed, it created conditions that caused years of political and social instability. The military set out to revolutionize government and the economy in conjunction with the Communist Party, aiming but failing to turn Portugal into a government of the proletariat.

Political and social developments after the Revolution of the Carnations (as the 1974 Revolution would be called), occurred in reaction to the dictatorial Salazar years. The revolutionary leaders found a country that was by far the poorest in Western Europe. The country suffered from paltry medical services, widespread illiteracy, an abysmal health system, and public institutions plagued by corruption and nepotism. So dismal were the political and economic conditions that most of the labor surplus went abroad to work in countries such as France, Germany, the United States, and Canada, beginning in earnest in the 1960s. The turmoil brought about by the Revolution only exacerbated problems in the economic arena.

First there was a drastic redistribution of wealth through the nationalization of commerce and big business, an action strongly supported by the Communist Party. Agrarian reform also occurred, and at a rapid rate, especially in the communist stronghold of Alentejo where lands were confiscated from absentee landowners and given to workers’ cooperatives. These measures were supported by the military’s revolutionaries, who had organized themselves into the Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA), and by Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves. But some dissidents within the MFA were not happy with the leftward drift of the country and after several incidents, including mass rallies to demonstrate the country’s opposition to a worker’s state, the prime minister resigned (August 29, 1975). The influence of the radical left waned after the Gonçalves resignation, but stable civilian democratic rule still seemed to elude the country. Then came the events of November 25, 1975, which further halted the leftward drift. The so-called “group of nine,” a dissident group of officers who disagreed with the radical leftist turn in the country, had lately gained the upper hand in the direction of the government. Opposed to the group were some revolutionary paratroopers, who, on November 25, attacked several air bases and demanded the dismissal of their commanders. A countercoup forced the paratroopers to surrender. In the end, Portugal would not become a worker’s state and the Communists, a minority party, would not able to take the reigns of power. The November 25 episode confirmed the phasing out of the military from politics in Portugal.

From the end of the revolutionary period to 1982

Although at the time it was not perceived as a turning point in the democratization of Portugal, the events of November 25, 1975, changed radically its political and economic landscape. The military, through the Council of the Revolution, still exerted considerable clout over the affairs of the state, but its role diminished with the passage of time until in 1982 the Council was abolished altogether. Parliamentary elections had taken place in 1975, a new constitution had taken effect in 1976, and there was no longer any valid reason for the military to serve as the guarantor of democracy by exercising its power to invalidate unconstitutional acts.

The turn away from the revolutionary agenda during this period meant that some of the “excesses” of the revolutionary days would eventually be dismantled, especially those related to nationalizing businesses and agrarian reform. After 1977 there was a gradual restoration of private property. Some estates that had been illegally seized were returned to their owners; some enterprises were also privatized, but the majority still remained property of the state. Economic hardship continued, however. The aftermath of the Portuguese Revolution can be characterized as a period not only of turmoil but also of economic stagnation, hardship, and inflation. Bureaucracy grew excessively between 1975–1980, and corruption and nepotism continued. There were many gains, such as freedom of the press, free elections, right to free association, freedom to strike, and the end of the colonial wars, but far from improving, life worsened for many Portuguese during the economic crisis of the late 1970s. Thousands emigrated for work, a situation that would diminish only after Portugal was accepted into the European Community in 1986 and the country received financial aid to use “largely for highways and public works that [would] provide the infrastructure for a modern economy” (Herr, p. 18).

By the end of the 1970s, a great number of intellectuals who initially welcomed the Revolution had grown disillusioned with it. They felt deceived, believing that a fraud had been perpetrated on the Portuguese people. They even opposed Portugal’s becoming more integrated into Western Europe, seeing this as a potential loss of identity and the uniqueness of Portuguese culture. To many intellectuals, the rapprochement with Europe signified the institutionalization of a bourgeois society with bourgeois values and a market economy. They did not believe the Revolution radicalized the institutions of the country; on the contrary, they thought, most of the changes were cosmetic and ultimately self-serving. Bourgeois society had returned with a vengeance by the end of the 1970s, and these Portuguese intellectuals felt foolish for putting out too much hope for radical change in Portuguese society. In their view, the Revolution had simply been an exercise in opportunism. Among the intellectuals who felt deceived by the evolution of events surrounding the Revolution and its aftermath was José Cardoso Pires.


Ballad of Dogs’ Beach has been well received both in Portugal and abroad. It won the APE (Portuguese Association of Writers) Fiction Prize in 1982. The selection committee unanimously considered that the novel had established the standard by which all other novels (about 50) that were competing for the Prize ought to be judged (Alves, p. 6). The novel immediately became a bestseller in Portugal and was subsequently translated into many different languages. Maria Alzira Seixo refers to the work as one of the best-written novels of recent times; it channels passion, she says, between political fury and the drunkenness of a criminal investigation, condensing this passion into an exemplary textual serenity (Seixo, p. 56). Writing in Hispania, Helena Kaufman ascribes an effectiveness to the novel, maintaining that it forces the reader to plunge into the darkness of Salazar’s fascist regime (Kaufman, p. 670). Finally, Maria Lúcia Lepecki compliments Cardoso Pires for confronting admirably the recent historical space of his country in Ballad of Dogs’ Beach, adding that readers, through the creative process of a dissertation, are coerced into investigating and reconstructing a crime, a society, and a country and its people (Lepecki, p. 92).

—José N. Ornelas

For More Information

Alves, Clara Ferreira. “Balada de Cardoso Pires Premiada a Cinco Vozes.” Jornal de Letras: Artes e Ideias 2, no. 56 (April 12–25, 1983): 6.

Ferreira, António Mega. “Entrevista com José Cardoso Pires.” Jornal de Letras: Artes e Ideias 2, no. 47 (December 7–20, 1982): 3.

Herr, Richard, ed. The New Portugal: Democracy and Europe. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, 1992.

Kaufman, Helena. “A Sociedade Portuguesa sobre Investigação em Balada da Praia dos Cães de José Cardoso Pires e Adeus, Princesa de Clara Pinto Correia.” Hispania 76, no. 4 (1993): 664–71.

Kayman, Martin. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Portugal. London: Merlin, 1987.

Lepecki, Maria Lúcia. “Review of Balada da Praiados Cães.” Colóquio: Letras 77 (1984): 92.

Ornelas, José N. “Balada da Praia dos Cães de José Cardoso Pires: Entre a História e a Ficção.” In Selected Proceedings: The Thirty-Fifth Annual Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference. Ed. Ramón Hernández-Rubio. Greenville: Furman University Press, 1987.

Pires, José Cardoso. Ballad of Dogs’ Beach. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1986.

Robinson, Richard. Contemporary Portugal: A History. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979.

Sapega, Elen. “No Longer Alone and Proud: Notes on the Rediscovery of the Nation in Contemporary Portuguese Fiction.” In After the Revolution: Twenty Years of Portuguese Literature, 1974–1994. Eds. Helena Kaufman, and Anna Klobucka. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Seixo, Maria Alzira. A Palavra do Romance: Ensaios de Genologia e Análise. Lisboa: Livros Horizonte, 1986.