(The Captain's Daughter)
Interview for O Independente
Portugal, November 2004
1. You dedicated The Captain’s Daughter to your great grandfather and your grandfather, who fought in the Great War. Did you usually listen to their stories about the war when you were young?
JRS. No. My great grandfather died in Portugal soon after the war because of the gas he inhaled in Flanders and my grandfather fought in Mozambique, but I never met him.
2. What made you write about this historical period?
JRS. One of the chapters of my PhD dissertation focused on the Great War. I learned a lot and wrote about the Portuguese involvement in that conflict in my non fictional book War Chronicles. Then I met a journalist from Público newspaper, Adelino Gomes, who told me that we had been cowards in the First World War. I was a bit shocked with that commentary, for it showed a profound lack of information regarding what had really happened. I realized it would be interesting to explain the actual events. So, I wrote this novel on two levels – you have a love story but also an explanation of the circumstances regarding the Portuguese involvement in the war.
3. An almost forgotten involvement…
JRS. Right. And I find that quite extraordinary, because all Portuguese families had someone involved in the war.
4. How do you explain that amnesia? Is it due to a lack of interest towards the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps or is it related to the stronger memory of the more recent Portuguese Colonial War in Africa?
JRS. In those days there wasn’t much cultural production going on in Portugal. There were few writers in the country and most people who fought in the Great War could not write properly, with the exception of André Brun. So we have mostly bad stuff about the Great War. In the Portuguese Colonial War, however, we had intellectuals fighting in the African bushes and they left a lot of written material on what they had witnessed. That’s why the memory of this war is stronger.
5. At the end of The Captain’s Daughter you mention the historical research that made this novel possible. How long did that research take?
JRS. To be honest, years. Most of the research was carried out in the 1990s, while I was preparing my PhD dissertation. For the novel I just had to add a few details.
6. Other authors get help from professional researchers. Did it ever cross your mind to do the same?
JRS. Initially, yes. But then I realized it wasn’t the best way. Only we, the authors, know what we want to find. I felt it was important that I saw the documents by myself, so that I could build the plot from them, pushing aside anyone who could intermediate the information.
7. You produced more than 600 pages. Don’t you think you could have edited more?
JRS. With the exception of some sequences that I deleted because I felt they were not advancing the plot, I would say that, in my opinion, everything in the novel plays a role. On one hand, the text builds the characters, and, on the other, takes the reader to the site and time where the action takes place.
8. There’s a certain point where Agnès is reading a newspaper and notices a small item telling the news of the death of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo. “Nowadays nobody can be safe out there”, she says. Is this detail a way for you to remind us that major events can emerge from seemingly casual news items?
JRS. Perhaps in an unconscious way. When I wrote that sequence I tried to show that the war began with an event that nobody paid attention to.
9. The social climb of the main character takes place through a religious school and the army…
JRS. I tried to recreate someone from the lower end of society. If you read 19th century novels, the main characters are all from the middle or upper classes, so I tried to do something different. Why not have a main character from the lower classes? The problem was that he would become only a soldier and that didn’t do if I wanted him to meet a French baroness. That’s why I needed him to climb the social ladder. But the novel shows a bunch of soldiers from northern Portugal who try to survive in the trenches. They are illiterate, ignorant and forgotten by Portugal, abandoned like rats in the mud.
10. In the second part of The Captain’s Daughter, the reader is taken to the frontlines. Did you visit Flanders to see the sites where the actual fighting took place?
JRS. Yes. At the end.
11. Did that trip make you change the story?
JRS. Not at all. I had a lot of bibliographical information and, when you’re on site, it’s impossible to understand what really happened. There was a complete transformation of the scenery and the trenches practically do not exist anymore.
12. The two main characters of the novel only meet at page 214. Isn’t it a bit risky to make it happen so late?
JRS. I didn’t have strong commercial concerns, if that’s what you mean. I focused more on building the characters and their lives, showing them converging slowly to each other. I invested a lot in their stories, perhaps more than is usual.
13. When the story moves to the trenches, the voice of captain Afonso Brandão fades away and we listen more to corporal Matias, a farmer who realizes that “war is 80 per cent boredom, 19 per cent of freezing cold and one per cent of sheer terror.” Is he the closest you have to a hero in The Captain’s Daughter?
JRS. A hero? Perhaps… When I began writing this novel I had an overall plan for the book, but some details were missing. So I created a group of soldiers to show the war from their perspectives. And, you see, at a certain point one of them almost involuntarily rose above the crowd. I became interested in Matias because I saw potential in him. From a mere soldier like all others he grew and, although I had not thought of it in that way, perhaps he became a real hero in the classic sense of the word.
14. The tired Portuguese soldiers were practically decimated by the Germans on the very day they were supposed to abandon the trenches. Is destiny the force that drives this novel?
JRS. The Captain’s Daughter is a question mark about the inevitability of destiny. What happened to the Portuguese soldiers is almost hollywoodesque. At the precise moment they were about to put themselves out of harm’s way, they were crushed by the Germans. It’s like a script for a movie, but it really took place.
15. How was it possible that the British High Command had not realized earlier what would happen?
JRS. The British refused to read what was drawn in the map. They had all the information, but they didn’t correctly interpret it. They thought the massive German concentration ahead of the tired Portuguese lines was so ostensive that it could only be a diversion. Only a couple of days before the actual attack did they realize that the threat was credible. It was too late.
16. Did your experience as a war reporter help you understand what those men felt during the fighting?
JRS. Not much. A reporter does not see war as it is, but as one of the sides allows him to see it. But I can assure you of one thing: I stayed in Belgrade for a week while NATO was bombing the city in 1999 and I came back to Portugal a bit disturbed. Now, imagine the psychological effects of hiding in the trenches throughout nine months and the bombs continuously falling…
17. After becoming a POW in Germany, Afonso does not look for the woman he promised to marry. Instead, he travels with his mates back to Portugal. Throughout the book we are confronted with situations where other people make decisions for him. Is your main character a weak person?
JRS. No. He’s just a man caught up in the whirlwind of History. He’s someone who cannot control his destiny, and I have to add that most liberated POWs were sick and weak.
18. One of The Captain’s Daughter characters says that “a good book is well written and has a good story.” Is that what you would like critics to say about your novel?
JRS. I didn’t write this book with critics in mind. This novel was written for me and my readers. I hope they like it, because I think it’s a good story and it’s well told. But, you know, a book is like your child. You don’t choose it – it materializes and we have to live with him, we have to accept his virtues and his faults.