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Alentejo Blue is the story of the Portuguese village of Mamarrosa told through the lives of those who live there and those who are passing through - men and women, children and old people, locals, tourists and expatriates.
For some, such as Teresa, a beautiful, dreamy village girl, it is a place from which to escape; for others - the dysfunctional Potts family - it is a way of running from trouble (but not eluding it). Vasco, a café owner who has never recovered from the death of his American wife, clings to a notion that his years in America make him superior to the other villagers. One English tourist makes Mamarrosa the subject of her fantasy of a new life, while for her compatriots, a young engaged couple, Mamarrosa is where their dreams finally fall apart.
At the book's opening an old man reflects on his long and troubled life in this beautiful and seemingly tranquil setting, and anticipates the return of Marco Afonso Rodrigues, the prodigal son of the village and a symbol of this now fast-changing world. The homecoming is the subject of continuing speculation, and when Marco Afonso Rodrigues does finally appear, villagers, tourists and expatriates are brought together and jealousies, passions and disappointments must inevitably collide.
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About the Author
Monica Ali is one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists of the decade, Newcomer of the Year at the 2004 British Book Awards and has been nominated for most of the major literary prizes in Britain. Her first novel, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the George Orwell Prize for political writing and the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Internationally there has been similar recognition, including, in the United States, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times 'First Fiction' Prize, for which the book was shortlisted.
Monica Ali lives in London with her husband and two children, and is working on her next novel.
Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and grew up in England. She is the author of Untold Story, In The Kitchen, Alentejo Blue and her first novel, Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the George Orwell Prize for political writing and the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
She lives in London with her husband and two children.
Date of Birth:October 20, 1967
Place of Birth:Dhaka, Bangladesh
Education:B.A. with Honors, Oxford, 1989
Read an Excerpt
By Monica Ali
ScribnerCopyright © 2006 Monica Ali
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAt first he thought it was a scarecrow. Coming outside in the tired morning light to relieve his bladder, blessing as always the old Judas tree, Joao turned his head and saw the dark shape in the woods. It took some time to zip his trousers. His fingers were like enemy agents. They pretended to be his instruments but secretly worked against him.
Joao walked out beneath the moss-skinned branches thinking only this: Eighty-four years upon the earth is an eternity.
He touched Rui's boots. They almost reached the ground. "My friend," he said, "let me help you." He waited for the courage to look up and see his face. When it came, he whispered in his lacerated old man's voice. "Querido," he said. "Ruizinho."
Standing on the log that Rui had kicked away, Joao took his penknife and began to cut the rope. He put his free arm across Rui's chest and up beneath his armpit, felt the weight begin to shift as the fibers sprang apart beneath the blade.
The almond blossom was early this year. The tomatoes too would come early and turn a quick, deceiving red. They would not taste of anything. Joao took Rui's crooked hand in his own and thought: These are the things that I know. It was time to put the broad beans in. The soil that had grown the cornneeded to rest. The olives this year would be hard and small.
He sat in the long grass with his back against the log and Rui resting against him. He moved Rui's head so it lay more comfortably on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Rui's body. For the second time he held him.
They were seventeen and hungry when they first met, in the back of a cattle wagon heading east to the wheat fields. Rui pulled him up without a word, but later he said, "There's work enough for all. That's what I hear." Joao nodded, and when the hills had subsided and the great plains stretched out like a golden promise, he leaned across and said, "Anyone who wants work can find it." They moved their arses on the wooden slats and pretended they weren't sore and looked out farther than they had ever seen before, white villages stamped like foam on the blue, the land breaking against the sky.
On the third day they put down at the edge of a small town and the children who ran up to meet the wagon were bitten hard, no different from Joao's brothers and sisters. Joao looked at Rui but Rui set his mouth and swung his legs over the side the same as the other men. The older ones got called and went to cut cork or plow the fields while Joao and Rui stood up tall with their hands in their pockets. Joao was so hungry he felt it in his legs and his hands and his scalp. They walked through the hovels, the women lining the doorways, the dogs nosing the gutters, and came to the center. "We'll stick together," said Rui. He had green eyes and a fine nose and white skin, as though he had never been out in the sun.
"If someone wants us, he'll have to take us both," said Joao, as if he were master of his destiny.
They scrounged half a loaf at the cafe by scrubbing the floor and humping the rubbish to the tip, and slept on the cobbled street with their mouths open. When he woke, the first thing Joao saw was Rui's face. He thought the pain in his stomach was pure hunger.
Side by side they scavenged and slept. They milled about with the other men waiting for work and learned a lot: how to eke out a few words to last a conversation, how to lean against a wall, how to spit, and how to fill up on indifference.
At the top of the square was a two-story building with bars on the bottom window. Joao had never seen a prison before. The prisoners sat in the window and talked to friends or received food from relatives. One day a dozen or more people had gathered. Joao and Rui had nothing else to do.
"He talks about sacrifice. Who is making these sacrifices, my friends? Ask yourselves."
No one looked at the prisoner. They were just hanging around waiting, though there was nothing to wait for.
The prisoner clutched the bars and pressed his face to them. His nose escaped. "Salazar," he said, "is not making sacrifices."
There was a general stirring, as if fear had blown in on the dry wind.
"Listen to me," said the prisoner. His face was thin and pinched, as though he had spent too long trying to squeeze it out of the narrow opening. "In the whole of the Alentejo, four families own three quarters of the land. It was like this too in other countries, like Russia. But now the Russian land belongs to the Russian people."
Each man averted his face from every other. It was not safe to read another's thoughts.
Joao glanced at Rui. Rui did not know what the others knew, or was too reckless to care. He looked directly at the prisoner.
"The people make the wealth, but the wealth does not belong to the people."
Men withdrew their hands from their pockets as if emptying their savings before leaving town. The prisoner slid his fingers between the bars. "It is forbidden for us to go barefoot. Salazar forbids it." The man laughed, and the laugh was as free as the body was caged. "Look, this is how we must bind our feet. As long as our feet are in slippers and rags, our bellies must be full."
An old man with a bent back, obliged to gaze at feet the long day through, grunted a loud assent. A younger man, blinking back tears of fury, said, "It is true."
The prisoner tipped back into the dark cell as though wrenched by some unknown force, perhaps by the darkness itself. Each free man discovered he had something to do elsewhere.
"Rui," said Joao, "we better go."
Rui stood with his hands on his hips and tossed his head like a bullfighter. "It's finished," said Joao. He grabbed Rui's elbow and dragged him away.
Later a man came to the square and beckoned Joao. "You want to work?"
"Anything," said Joao. "Please."
"Come," said the man and turned around.
"My friend," said Joao, looking over at Rui, who whistled and kicked his heels against the wall.
The man kept walking.
"Wait," called Joao. "I'm coming."
He looked up and saw Rui's hat on a large stone, bathed in a circle of milky light. He imagined Rui sitting there, taking off his hat for the last time.
Joao's spine was stiff and there was an ache in his chest. He shifted in the damp grass and looked across and saw how oddly Rui's legs were lying. His trousers were hemmed with mud. One boot faced down and the other faced up. For us, thought Joao, there can be no ease.
He had been there as usual on Thursday, outside the Junta de Freguesia for the game. Everyone was there: Jose, Manuel, Nelson, Carlos, Abel, and the rest. Only Mario did not come, because Mario had broken his hip. "That Manuel," said Rui, "is a cheating bastard." "That Rui," said Manuel, "is a stupid donkey." Everything went on the way it had for the past eighteen years, since Rui turned up in Mamarrosa, though Rui and Joao had been the young ones then. "Carlos," said Abel, "you bowl like a woman." "Shut up," said Carlos. "What do you know about women?"
Malhadinha was the best way for men to talk. You rolled the balls out onto the green and rolled the words out after them. You didn't have to face each other.
Afterward they locked the balls in the Junta and went to the cafe to drink.
"My granddaughter wants to go to Lisbon," said Jose.
"My son left London and went to Glasgow," said Rui.
"My daughter," said Carlos, "says she will throw me out if I cough once more in the night. But she always says that."
When it was time to go to bed, Joao walked with Nelson, and Rui walked with Manuel. Sometimes Joao walked with Manuel. Sometimes he walked with Jose or Antonio or Mario. But in all those years he had never walked alone with Rui.
Joao thought he did not want to be the one to return Rui's hat to his wife. He thought and thought about what to do. A bird flew down and landed on the hat's ridge. It was gold with a black head and black feet. Joao had never seen a bird like that before, and he knew it was a sign that he should keep the hat. Then he remembered about Rui's wife. Dona Rosa Maria had died not last year but the year before that. The day they buried her was a scorcher. July the fourth: memorial day of Isabella of Portugal, patron saint of difficult marriages and the falsely accused.
* * *
When they met for the second time, they were men.
Joao passed the greenshirt parade in the Praca Souza Prado and climbed the steps up to the Rua Fortunato Simoes Dos Santos, heading for his favorite bar. At the top of the steps, he turned and watched as a boy marched out of the ranks and raised his right arm in the infamous salute. Joao went into the bar and saw Rui. His skin had darkened and his nose was no longer fine (it looked as though it had been broken), but Joao knew it was Rui because he brought back the pain in Joao's stomach.
He was talking, drawing people in from the corners of the room. "All I am saying is that a man who owns ten thousand hectares or more and dines on six courses twice a day is living a life of excess. Doesn't the Public Man himself tell us we must restrain our desires?" Rui wore a checked shirt, a frayed jacket, and his hair dangerously long: It came to within an inch of his collar. "Nobody can contradict Salazar."
"But you speak like a ... a ..." The man sitting opposite Rui dropped his voice. "A Communist."
"'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.' That's what they say." Rui waved his hand. "Whoever heard such nonsense? Why should a man work according to his ability? Why should a man receive according to his needs? Imagine what would happen if people took this nonsense into their heads! Alvaro Cunhal" - he let the name of the Communist Party leader hang for a while - "must rot in his cell forever."
Joao knew what Rui was doing. He could see by the way the others shifted and glanced around that they knew too.
"We are with the other side," said Rui. He looked up and saw Joao, and something passed across his face. "Blackshirts and greenshirts stick together."
"Excuse me," said a little vole of a man sitting by the window, "but do you accuse Salazar of fascism?"
"Accuse?" said Rui. "I certainly accuse him of nothing. In 1945, when he decreed all flags to fly at half mast as a sign of respect for our dear departed Hitler, I saluted him. We supported the Germans, so of course it was a sad day for us all."
"But no," cried the little man with his lips aquiver, "we weren't with anybody."
"Oh," said Rui, stroking his nose, "I forget. But nevertheless, I am sad when I am told to be sad."
It was 1951, the third year Joao passed in Lindoso with his sister, her husband, their four children, and the husband's brother, mother, and aunt in a long low house with three doors and one window. In the season he cut cork, and when the season was over, he did whatever he could. Over the years he had been a grape picker, an olive picker, a goatherd; a tanner of hides in Olhao, a laborer on the roads in Ourique, and a gutter of fish in Portimao.
He tried to warn Rui. "There are spies," he said. "Informers. That little man with the shrunken head, how does he make his living? Nobody knows."
Rui shrugged. He felt his nose, pinching down from the bridge to the tip. He could never get used to his nose. "The PIDE pays him, I am sure. These secret police are not so secret."
"Please," said Joao. "Be careful."
Rui cast his line again into the dark waters of the Mira. "Nobody speaks more highly of Salazar than me."
He had been in France after the War, with all the other illegals, working the construction sites. He learned to read and write. "Liberte, egalite, fraternite," he said. "In France," he said, "a man has rights. He has dignity. He has respect."
"He has freedom," said Joao. He sat down on the riverbank.
Rui sat next to him. In the cafes and bars, you could not talk freely. Out here there was privacy.
Joao could hear Rui breathing. He could hear his heart beating, or perhaps that was his own heart, banging in its cage. He looked in Rui's face, and for a long moment they held each other's gaze. Rui looked away, as he always did.
"For the love of God," said Joao.
"Tell me about Portimao," said Rui.
In the months since they found each other in the Rua Fortunato Simoes Dos Santos, Joao had told it many times. Rui wanted to know everything about the sardine-processing factory. The worker who read out articles from Avante! - who had snitched on him? What, exactly, did he look like? Was Joao sure he did not come from Aljustrel, because he sounded like a Comrade that Rui had met there. He wanted to know as well: Did the men respond? Were they interested in joining the Party? Did they see that the means of production should be owned by the people? Did they understand about surplus value?
Joao did not like to think about the factory. Rui kept making him describe the workers' barracks. The smell there was, if anything, worse than in the main building. The floor was a permanent slime: the result of loose tiles, faulty drains, blocked souls.
"There's nothing more to tell," said Joao. What would happen if he put his hand on Rui's cheek? Just to think about it made him tremble.
"The barracks," said Rui, "did it bring men closer, living together like that?"
"No," said Joao harshly. He thought about the men he had known there who came to his bunk at night, who had wives waiting at home, children to be fed.
"All right," said Rui. "Let's be quiet, then. We are not afraid of silence."
They looked down at the Mira, the never-ending pilgrimage of water, moving blindly, relentlessly on. A rowboat went by. Rui touched his hat.
Joao turned his head to Rui. Rui would not look at him. Joao kept waiting, out of spite. If he put his hand between Rui's legs, if he led him up a dark alley and turned around, if he took him into the woods and dropped to his knees and kept his eyes down - these things Rui would accept. Joao wasn't having it. His desire was so strong it felt like hate.
"Salazar," said Rui, who was, after all, afraid of silence, "has not told a single truth from the day he was born. If he tells you that the sun will rise in the east, you know it will rise in the west. But we keep pretending to believe his lies. That's the problem with our people. If you pretend for long enough, you forget you were only pretending in the first place. The illusion becomes a kind of reality." He looked underneath his jacket where he had thrown it down and found the tin of bait and then began to wind in his line. "It's like me. I didn't start coming to the river to fish, but now I think I'm a fisherman."
"Why did you come, then?" said Joao, wanting to hear it.
"I'll tell you something," said Rui, finally letting his eyes meet Joao's. It was safe now that he was standing. "Salazar has told so many lies that his tongue has begun to rot. Really, it is what I heard. That's why he likes to hide away. Yes, my friend, it is true. This is true: Salazar's tongue is black."
Not long after, they took him far away, to Porto. Within a day or two it was known over the town that the address of the PIDE headquarters in Porto was 329 Rua do Heroismo. It was said that the back door connected with a cemetery.
Joao's nephew, who was in the Portuguese Youth, drilling every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon with a wooden gun, said, "Will they nail his wee-wee to the wall?"
"Get out," said Joao. "Is that what they teach you? Get out."
Everybody knew the stories. They beat a pregnant woman on the belly. They burned a man's hands and threw him out of the top-floor window. They made prisoners do "the statue," standing by a wall for ten days at a time with only their fingertips touching it. Everybody knew the stories. The children seemed to know them first.
Joao was getting a cramp. He needed to stand up. He pushed Rui's hip gently to roll him off. The bone was sharp beneath his hand. He slid his palm up beneath the undershirt and felt the stomach, the ribs, the looseness of the skin like a newborn calf's. The scent of eucalyptus anointed the day as the heat rose up from the ground. Somewhere a dog began to moan. The cork trees kept their counsel. It was two hundred years old, the tree that Rui had chosen. Eighty-four years was barely a beginning.
Joao went over to the large stone and picked up the hat. The felt was warm between his fingers. He sat down on the stone and put the hat on his head. Where were the tears? Why didn't they come?
Excerpted from Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali Copyright © 2006 by Monica Ali. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion:
1. The stories in Alentejo Blue are linked by location and characters. Which story did you find the most compelling and why?
2. Vasco has one of the most consistent presences throughout the book: his story is told either through his own voice or by those who visit his café. Discuss him and how he and his café set a framework for the book.
3. In the book an "expatriot" is described as someone who has exiled oneself, or separated oneself from their fatherland. Which characters do you consider to be expatriots? Discuss the writer Stanton and the Potts family. Discuss Theresa and her impending move to London and her separation from her homeland.
4. Monica Ali demystifies and demythologizes Portugal in this book. Once known as the country that spearheaded the exploration of the world and undertook the Age of Discovery, Portugal's cultural influences include Roman, Spanish, Celtic, and Moorish influences, which provide it with its rich cultural heritage. Yet, Ali depicts Mamarossa as a tough and hardscrabble town, hardly inviting for tourists. Discuss the couple - The Mowatts - who are on holiday in Mamarossa. How does their experience make you view Portugal.
5. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of immorality-from the petty thievery of Ruby Potts to the adulterous affair of Stanton and Chrissie Potts to the small lies that the characters tell each other. What other indiscretions are revealed? Discuss how these indiscretions set the tone for the book.
6. One of the most interesting relationships in Alentejo Blue is the friendship that Stanton shares with Ray Potts. Why does Stanton allow Ray to loiter and what do you think attracts the boy to Stanton?
7. Describe the relationship of the Potts family to the other characters in the book. Why do you think the Potts's play such a central role in Alentejo Blue?
8. Discuss the significance of sex and sexuality in Alentejo Blue. How does the unromantic and stark portrait of sex and sexuality relate to the book's main themes, particularly that of belonging?
9. Who, if anyone, do you feel is the central or anchoring presence in Alentejo Blue?
10. The last story takes place in Vasco's café and envelops the entire community. What is the importance of ending the book with this story? Discuss community as it relates to your own life and neighborhood.
11. How does Alentejo Blue compare to Ali's first novel Brick Lane? What themes do they have in common?
ENHANCING YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Visit Portugal's website to learn more about the country and its history: http://www.portugal.org/index.shtml
2. Learn more about Monica Ali on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monica_Ali
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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mays
Andorra, a Novel by Peter Cameron
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik