The Emperor of Portugallia

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Once upon a time, a hundred years and more ago, there was an ordinary man in an ordinary village, who led a really rather ordinary life. He worked hard, but nothing really excited him; he wasn’t very happy, but he wasn’t very sad either.

Until his daughter was born, and in an instant, all that changed forever:

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Could Selma Lagerlöf’s The Emperor of Portugallia almost be a fairytale? It seems to belong to a time when everything was simpler, when community relationships were strong and it was easy to draw a line between good and evil, Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, or whoever it was in this particular story. Yet as baby Klara grows up, things begin to get more complicated. She has to make moral choices that have consequences.

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The world in which Klara and her father Jan live is hurtling into modernity. By the time she is on the brink of adulthood, she is ready to leave her rural idyll for the big city, ostensibly to earn money to stop her family losing their cottage; but she is also ready for an adventure. And once she’s gone, her parents hear nothing but rumours for what feels far too long. Jan doesn’t cope well with the loss.

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To say any more of what really happened to Klara in the city, or what happened to Jan back home after that, would be to spoil the story.

It’s enough to say that the end is heartbreaking; Lagerlöf had thought about calling this a “Swedish King Lear” herself. She was hugely popular in her day, much translated and still much loved, but English translations of her work have dated.

Peter Graves’ new translation is part of a larger commitment to publish fresh English editions of Lagerlöf’s work, such as Mårbacka. The Emperor of Portugallia was published  on the eve of the First World War. Reading it I was struck by the feeling that the world is changing to fast for us to keep up with, and we don’t know what the consequences will be. A century later, is that feeling any different?

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Posted in books, literature, translation

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