Portugal is a semi-autobiographical story that tells the story of three generations of the Muchat family: Simon, his father Jean, and his grandfather Abel. Each section focuses on a different man, though the story is told in the present tense with Simon central to the story. Simon lives in France, where he grew up, teaching art in schools, and getting lost in childish distractions rather than working on his next book. He denies his writer’s block but never creates something he feels confident enough to publish. His lack of friends leaves him isolated in a city that doesn’t feel like home. Simon is invited to a sparsely attended comic festival in Portugal, where his family is from and becomes enamored with the country by his visit. Overwhelmed by emotion, Portugal feels so suddenly familiar that he feels like hugging strangers on the beach. Back in France, unwilling to commit to his girlfriend or buy a house and settle down, a break-up sends Simon to seek validation from a single piece of mail—a wedding invitation from a Portuguese cousin he hasn’t spoken to in years. This convenient excuse to return gives him the chance to attend a family reunion and learn how his family came to live in France, what they left behind in Portugal, and even the origin of his last name.
Simon seems to seek guidance for his future by revisiting his family’s past, returning to a country he never knew but that somehow still feels like home. Portugal is a story of displacement and return, family expectations and boundaries, family truths and generational rifts. The change in Simon is not a mid-life crisis, but more like a revelation, a freedom that can only come after giving up a life that has become more burden than joy.
The plot is a bit slow to pick up during Simon’s part of the story, which may turn readers off, but this is purposeful, as it reflects Simon’s stagnant and directionless life before his visit to Portugal. The dialogue-driven second section keeps the action moving and develops depth to the story by allowing Simon to learn more about his family’s relationships and history. In the third arc, Simon becomes invested in exploring his family’s history more deeply and learning about his grandfather through photos, postcards, and stories.
Pedrosa’s beautiful use of color effortlessly sets the tone for the story and Simon’s growth and development. He experiences a total transformation of character–from a dull, sepia-toned, steeped-in-apathy existence in France to a lighthearted, free, color-outside-the-lines life in Portugal. The stark contrast between the color of France and the color of Portugal is so effective at communicating Simon’s joy and longing for this other life. In the second act, where Simon spends time with his father at a family reunion, the colors and crisp and realistic. In the third act, the colors stray from realism, dominated by washes of yellow, mauve, pastel teal, and orange. The lively watercolors blur beyond their lines at times, making a moment seem like a fond memory as Simon experiences both his present story and his grandfather’s past at the same time.
Portugal begins as a symbol, a desire, but becomes a concrete measure of closure, peace, and building relationships. Instead of using art as an escape from an unfulfilling life, he turns to engaging with the world around him through his art.
This book is a hefty, oversized hardcover that is worth making room for on your shelves. It’s a multilingual book; if you don’t know Portuguese, you should be able to relate to Simon fairly well. It was hard to decide if I should try to translate some dialogue while reading or experience the story as Simon does, understanding little but willing to listen and learn. Pedrosa’s use of colored speech bubbles makes it easy to distinguish what languages the characters are speaking.
In terms of content warnings, librarians should be aware that there is some cursing, a short scene with non-sexual nudity, and some dialogue about sex. This title would work best for adult readers—I don’t think teens would feel quite as engaged with the emotions and soul-searching portrayed here.
by Cyril Pedrosa