(The White Angel)
Interview for Visão
Portugal, October 2010
1. How much did you want to tell your dad’s story?
JRS: Very much. A cousin of mine once asked me: “why don’t you write the amazing story of your dad?” She’s right, I thought: it’s a great story! So I began writing The White Angel. I wrote so much that, at one stage, I had a very long novel in my hands.
2. How long?
JRS: So long that I realized I had to separate it into two different novels. Life in a Breath, where I tell the story of my grandparents, is actually part one of The White Angel. But I wrote both books in such a way that you don’t have to read one to understand the other. They are self-contained novels, one is not a sequel of the other. The main characters in one become secondary characters in the other. But the writing went on and on. When I finished The White Angel I had to cut out some three hundred pages, it had become too long again.
3. How hard was it to edit out three hundred pages?
JRS: Not hard. I had to decide what was important for the story and what was not. I did it easily, no problem at all.
4. It didn’t hurt?
JRS: Oh, I’m sure I can use the edited part in some other novel…
5. The White Angel, part three?
JRS. No. I can write a totally different novel and, nevertheless, use the same characters. Isabel Allende does that. For example, the main characters of Daughter of Fortune are secondary characters in Portrait in Sepia.
6. Is that happening because characters escape authors? I mean, in the third part of The White Angel, Diogo, the soldier, almost becomes the main character…
JRS: This novel really has two main characters. I wanted to do a little bit of War and Peace here. You have a character that represents the humanist view of Portugal in Africa and another character who represents the violent view.
7. Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. The White Angel’s route is the opposite of La Divina Commedia. You follow the same itinerary, but you have a different ending.
JRS: My novels always have good and bad endings simultaneously.
8. They remain open?
JRS: Yeah, like life. Unless a character dies, everything ends in an open manner. In life, the ending of something is always the beginning of something else.
9. Do you view The White Angel as homage to your dad?
JRS: It’s much more than that. This novel recovers a certain humanist vision of many Portuguese in Africa. You see, Portuguese colonialism was filled with contradictions. When you look at the secret police’s reports, you see they were involved in the death of African liberation activists, but we also find that the secret police opposed white land owners who mistreated the black population. The novel focuses on these contradictions: the Portuguese were waging war at the liberation movements, but my dad helped injured soldiers from both sides, who were accommodated in neighbouring beds at the Portuguese hospitals.
10. I’m sure PIDE, the secret police, didn’t find that amusing at all…
JRS: Of course they didn’t, but it was regularly done nevertheless. Other Portuguese doctors did the same. In the book I tell a true story about an American complaining to my dad that the Portuguese allowed niggers ahead of him, a white man, in the hospital cue. This is when the Americans were supporting the liberation movement through the Ford Foundation. This novel does not present us with a coherent view of things, but the various contradictions. Reality is contradictory.
11. What did you do to reach that reality? Did you research, did you interview witnesses, did you travel to Mozambique?
JRS: Talking to people that lived in those days was extremely important, because they provide us the living history and tell us things that documents do not. Even small daily things. There was this popular advert on the radio at the top of the hour. “What time is it?”, asks one voice. “It’s time to drink a pint of black Laurentina!” It’s the witnesses that gave me the story of the Portuguese military officers visiting an injured soldier at the hospital while liberation leaders visited an injured guerrilla on the neighbouring bed. But I also had to be aware of the fact that memories are selective, so the interviews had to be careful about that.
12. Like a filter?
JRS: Precisely. We must determine if we’re dealing with romantic memories or with accurate memories.
13. Was your dad a good story teller?
JRS: He was. But he never talked about the war. Nor of his work. Even after the Wiriyamu massacre, I only realized his role after he died, when other people told me what happened.
14. He didn’t talk about the massacre later on?
JRS: Nope. Sometimes he would tell an African story. For example, once he told me about this disease that kids caught in the grass. So he told me he managed to convince the kids not to pee close to the grass by arguing that snakes were hidden there, ready to bite their penises. Using these techniques, he managed to eradicate some endemic diseases. And he was proud of it as a doctor.
15. At the beginning of the novel there’s something that helps us understand your dad. His father asks him: “if you use a ring that makes you invisible and nobody can see you, would you do the right thing?” Is this fact or fiction?
JRS: It’s fiction. That derives from the fact that my novels always have a philosophical approach. In The White Angel, the philosophical subject is the concept of right and wrong. It’s about people who are faced with hard dilemmas: if they keep silent their life will be easier, but they are being accomplices to evil; if they rise against it they will be punished, but they would be doing the right thing. The problem of good and evil is present throughout the novel.
16. Why do you do that?
JRS: Because I think it’s important. Anyone who’s read my novels knows that they are not just about a story. If you just want a story, there are two hundred thousand novels in the bookstore that tell you about this gal who met a boy and they fell in love and so on. I try, in my novels, to bring some added value to the readers, something about history or philosophy or a specific field of knowledge. In the instance of The White Angel, it’s philosophical thoughts about right and wrong, especially in a time when these concepts are not particularly valued. People nowadays value what’s efficient, what’s profitable, not what’s right.
17. Do you think our society lacks values?
JRS: People do neglect the importance of an ethical attitude. And the novel shows us ethics in action.
18. Your family had a guerrilla at home, didn’t it?
JRS: Ernesto was an expert in mines for Frelimo, the Mozambique liberation movement. My father managed to get him freed by PIDE, the Portuguese secret police.
19. So, your dad got along with both sides in the war.
JRS: That’s right. He was a friend to the PIDE chief, but also to the Frelimo guerrillas. The novel tells you the story of a doctor who has no borders. “I don’t have terrorists under my care, I have patients”, he would say. He practiced medical ethics under extreme conditions. The South African newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, travelled with him once and began the article by showing my dad taking care of a guerrilla he found in the bush. The guerrilla asks my dad not to treat black soldiers who were fighting for the Portuguese. My dad tells him: “you bring me my mum’s assassin for health care and I’ll help him.” I included this dialogue in the novel. At the same time, my dad would go to the PIDE chief’s home to listen to soccer on the radio. Both were Benfica supporters.
20. So, that’s how Ernesto goes from terrorist to your gardener…
JRS: Yeah, my dad was a friend to the PIDE chief. Instead of the guerrilla prisoner being killed, he managed to get him to work at our home. Ernesto worked for us and, when he had a son, he named him after my father.
21. Is Ernesto alive?
JRS: I don’t know, I’ve looked for him but I never found him afterwards.
22. Did your mum like the way she is portrayed in the novel?
JRS: She hasn’t read it yet. But it’s important to stress that the characters are not real people, they are fictional creations. I add, I edit, I change. This is a novel.
23. So you weren’t bothered by describing your dad chasing girls at college?
JRS: He is a character in the novel. But it’s reasonable to assume that my dad, when he was in his twenties, chased girls. It’s normal.
24. You spoke with Antonino Melo, the commander of the commando group who carried out the Wiriyamu massacre. How was that conversation?
JRS: Interesting. There’s a similarity to something that happened to me when I wrote The Wrath of God, when I had to show what’s in the head of an Islamic radical to understand how they perceive the world. In The White Angel, I dealt with war atrocities and I kept asking myself: “why did they kill three year old children?” I may understand why do they kill a eighteen year old man who they suspect is a guerrilla, but a three year old child?
25. It doesn’t make sense.
JRS: So I asked Antonino Melo. And he answered me: “you see, there are some things I cannot explain here, today; you’ve got to be in those days and understand the way people saw things then to comprehend why we did it”. That’s why I tried to bring the reader into the environment of the commandos, so that the reader sees the way they saw things, their priorities, their thought processes. Because, looking at things from 2010, those atrocities make no sense at all. How do I explain things in a way that people will understand? I don’t know if the novel manages to do it, but at least I tried.
26. And what did Vinte Pacanate, one of Wiriyamu’s survivers, tell you?
JRS: I met him at Wiriyamu and what he told me was in agreement with what Antonino Melo had told me. What the novel narrates about the massacre is, I think, true to the events. The only fiction is the dramatization of what happened.
27. Are the survivors still angry?
JRS: Things happened many years ago. Mozambicans are nice, good people. And after the colonial war came the civil war, which was worse. So, all that became past.
28. Did you enjoy writing The White Angel?
JRS: I think it’s impossible for a reader to enjoy a story if its author didn’t enjoy writing it. Sometimes I hear other novelists say: “oh, writing is utterly painful!” I don’t get it. For me, writing is pleasure.