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  • Is the Minor Essential?: Contemporary Portuguese Fiction and Questions of Identity
  • Helena Kaufman (bio)

Portugal and the Minor Identity

To discuss the concept of “minor” might seem relatively straightforward. It implies defining what is “minor” and then proceeding to determine the context in which it is to be used: literary, linguistic, political, and so on. However, as one soon discovers, to discuss the concept of “minor” in literature, for example, will have to incorporate the linguistic, social, and political articulations of it. Moreover, the definition itself is bound to raise some difficulties, as well. One could choose to found it on the most commonly used, extra-contextual meaning of the word—“minor” is smaller, narrower, marginal, lesser in importance or stature. However, such a use of the word would ignore some transformative contributions, at least in the realm of literary criticism, by philosophers and theorists from, for example, Heidegger to Deleuze and Guattari, for whom “minor” was connoted as hidden and de-centered and yet essential in its significance.

To best define “minor” would, therefore, imply exposing and discussing the contradictions and paradoxes lying at the heart of it. Portugal seems to be the case in point as it struggles to simultaneously describe and question its own condition of minority. Two positions are important when approaching Portugal’s cultural and literary status in terms of being considered “minor.” The first stems from the standard perception of “minor” and describes the specific circumstances of the exclusion of Portuguese literature from the political, cultural, and literary center or canon. The second position pries deeper into the structure of the “minor” itself, examining the intrinsic nature of literature to resist canonization, or, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, its “revolutionary” potential.

Contemporary Portugal seems to be a perfect example of a minor European nation. Its geo-political positioning puts Portugal literally on the margins of Europe: it is a small country on the Westernmost shore of Europe with the population of approximately ten million. [End Page 167] Although Portugal has been a member of the European Union since 1986, its economy dependent on agriculture cannot compete with that of heavily developed, industrialized Central and Western European countries. But here the simple identification of Portugal with the minor gets complicated. The first indication of ambiguity eroding Portugal’s minor status is the question of the Portuguese language. Judging by several indicative statistics, Portuguese is, in fact, treated as a minor language. There are few translations from Portuguese fiction or professional literature available in English compared, for example, with those in Spanish or Russian, not to mention German or French. Teaching of Portuguese at American universities has always been relegated to the secondary status of the so-called “less taught languages.” Portuguese constitutes a section in Spanish or Modern languages departments with the exception of Brown University where there actually exists Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies. In general, if Portuguese continues to be taught in the U.S., it is, for better or for worse, chiefly due to the interest in Brazil and not in Portugal. However, because Portugal was once a colonial power present on four continents, it should be readily recognized as a major language, given the number of people who speak Portuguese in the world today (150 million).

Portuguese-speaking nations have long been involved in an effort to gain a major status for their language. In 1994 they signed an orthographic agreement to unify spelling differences among national variations in the use of Portuguese (Continental, Brazilian, and African). Whether the agreement will be honored by the respective parties still remains to be seen but it shows that Portugal and its former colonies are realistic about the ways in which the Portuguese language and through it, the cultures and literatures of the countries which speak it, have a chance to move to the center stage, out of a minor and into a major status.

Regarding the case of Portuguese literature alone, this ambiguity was recently reconfirmed to some extent by Harold Bloom’s book, The Western Canon (1994). In it Bloom includes a chapter on the twentieth-century Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, the only representative of the Portuguese-language literature in...

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pp. 167-182
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