‘The Night Watchman’ and the Dilemma of Living in Portugal by Richard Zimler

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Imagine a country with the lowest salaries in Western Europe, where about 40 percent of young people are unemployed, and where 50,000 shops went out of business in 2011 and 2012.

The author in Santa Marinha Square

Now also imagine one of the two political parties running this country proposing that it needs less education – fewer years of schooling – in order to overcome its economic woes.  Yes, you read that right, less education! 

Keep in mind that leaders of this same populist party also recently affirmed that there is no reason why basic civil rights – such as freedom of speech and religion – shouldn’t be subject to a popular vote.

Welcome to my homeland, Portugal!

Rua do Vale

In a recent study, Ricardo Reis, a professor of economics at Columbia University, noted that the Portuguese grew poorer between 2000 and 2012 than Americans after the Great Depression of the 1930s. To escape this massive economic meltdown – and the slash-and-burn de-funding of education and social security mandated by our Old Boy network of ministers – more than a quarter of a million Portuguese have emigrated over the last three years.  And yet, surprisingly enough, for those of us who’ve managed to hold onto our jobs or who have squirreled away sufficient savings, the country remains a pretty good place to live. The food and wine are excellent, the streets are safe, and the varied landscapes – from sandy beaches to isolated mountain ranges – offer a great mix of weekend escapes.  In particular, Oporto – the city where I have lived since 1990 – is experiencing a renaissance in its once-deserted historical center.  Dozens of handsome new restaurants, cafés and shops have opened in recent years, giving much-needed dynamism to the city’s cobblestone streets and nineteenth-century townhouses.

Over the last few years, I’ve often spoken out on Portuguese television and radio about the ongoing economic crisis and the devastating effects of massive government cuts on the country’s most vulnerable citizens.  Setting my new novel – The Night Watchman – in Lisbon afforded me the opportunity to explore my feelings more deeply.

The Night Watchman opens with Chief Inspector Henrique Monroe summoned to a luxurious Lisbon mansion to investigate the slaying of a construction magnate named Pedro Coutinho.  The wealthy 59-year-old has been gagged so cruelly that he choked to death before bleeding out from the bullet wound in his gut. On the wall behind him, five Japanese characters – ディアーナ – have been written in blood.  After questioning the victim’s guilt-ridden daughter, Monroe comes to believe that Coutinho might have been killed for defending the troubled teenager from the violent sexual advances of a family friend.

The view from Monroe’s apartment

As Monroe traces the links between Coutinho’s murder and government leaders, the violent secrets he uncovers begin to bring back the traumas of his own childhood, when he and his younger brother were severely abused by their father at the family’s isolated ranch in Colorado.  His fears and fragilities begin to alter the direction and scope of his investigation – and in unpredictable ways. Then, when key evidence goes missing from police headquarters, he realizes that those running the country might not permit him to solve the case….

The Night Watchman was published in Portugal last October and, happily for me, remained on bestseller lists for about three months.  Critics generally described it as a psychological mystery, which is accurate enough.  But, as always, it seems to me that the most compelling aspects of the novel – indeed, of any good novel – are impossible to reduce to bookshop categories.

Through the narrator of The Night Watchman and his younger brother Ernie, I’ve tried to examine how the past influences the shape and scope of our present life. And to examine the opposite, as well: how what we do in our present life alters our perspective on the past, thereby altering that past itself.  For instance, over the course of his investigation, Monroe comes to understand the abusive relationship between his mother and father in subtle ways that evaded him as a boy. Although these insights don’t provide him with any miraculous sense of redemption, his new perspective on the past does indeed help him be more honest and attentive to his wife and kids.  And by helping him understand the motives of the murderer he’s trying to track down, these insights also – surprisingly – bring him closer to solving the case at hand.

Santa Marinha Square

A topic that remains largely taboo in Portugal is at the heart of the novel: child abuse.  As I write this article, the claims against Woody Allen made by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow continue to make headlines.  Regardless of whether or not we believe her, the controversy she stirred up serves as a reminder that a great many of us would rather shunt aside the stories of victims than be forced to recognize how common violence inside families is – and to admit that people we would otherwise regard as talented or generous can commit monstrous crimes.  While writing The Night Watchman, I realized that I wanted to focus on how this culture of denial deafens us to the stories of victims.  Through Henrique Monroe, I was able to explore the mind of a man shamed by his past and who has never told his wife and sons about what happened to him as a child – who must struggle with the effects of abuse every day of his life.

One big surprise awaited me as I wrote the book: I discovered that I was far more interested in the moral crisis affecting Portugal than the economic one. Unfortunately, crimes ranging from bank frauds to rape frequently go unpunished here, especially if the perpetrators are connected to a political party. This failure to bring criminals to justice has produced a culture of passivity and defeatism.  Even readers who praised my novel as intensely shocking and moving have told me that all my efforts will do no good, because the corrupt political system is simply too well-established.

Another surprise awaited me while I was promoting the novel: several interviewers told me I was courageous for writing it – the implication being that I might suffer reprisals from government officials.  Their fears reminded me that the consequences of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974 are still very much with us. Put simply, many people here are still afraid to voice their opinions.

I’m not at all worried about reprisals, however; novels like mine exist in a literary world far off the radar of the politicians running this country.  Curiously enough, the problem of how to fight them is far more delicate – and difficult – for the narrator of The Night Watchman.  Why?  Henrique Monroe is a policeman, so his job is, at least in part, to maintain order.  Which leaves him with a terrible dilemma: should he continue to maintain order in an unjust and morally compromised society or hand in his resignation?

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Read our review of The Night Watchman here.

Richard Zimler, The Night Watchman (Constable & Robison, 2014), 422pp.

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