Robert Wilson is a British author living in Portugal for many years. At this moment he lives in Redondo, a small village in Alentejo, and it is there that his latest books have been written. From the ten he already published two are related with Portugal: “A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON” (1999) and “THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS” (2001). Both of them center one important part of their action in the Portuguese WWII era, and that is the reason for a couple of questions to the author.
In the center of this conversation is specially the first book that focus on the badly known “wolfram war”, that only in the last years has been better revealed even in Portugal. Also this is one of the most important books from Wilson as he received the “1999 CWA Gold Dagger” award the “2003 International Deutsche Krimi Prize”.
Land in Portugal: Part of the action of the books you wrote about Portugal is taking place in the WWII period. Why have you choose that era and subject?
Robert Wilson: I had written four books set in Africa, and at that time Africa was not a very popular place for people to read about.
When I finished those books I was already living in Portugal for ten years. I thought: people knew more about Portugal; they felt more identified with the country, so maybe I should write something about it.
As I was already living here for a couple of years, I felt more comfortable writing about the place. I knew something about the people and the language.
It was then just a question to find the right subject. These were the 1990’s and I was reading a lot about Nazi Gold in the newspapers. I believed that maybe there could be a story for me related with the way it was coming from Germany, trough Spain, into Portugal and then mysteriously ending up in South America.
But as I thought more about it, gold did not looked such one exciting subject, strangely enough. My wife was doing some research with me in London and I told her to cross-reference gold and Portugal, and see what would come out.
She came back, very quickly, and told me that the gold was coming into the country during the period of Salazar, during WWII, because of wolfram.
What is Wolfram? - I asked, and she answered: “I don’t know”.
We found out that wolfram was tungsten, and when Hitler invaded Russia he cut himself off from the biggest supply of wolfram in the world that is China. That meant that – because he was fighting a particular kind of war, a tank war – it demanded lots of hardened steel, and the way you harden steel is using the alloy tungsten, so he had to find one alternative supply.
There was a little bit in Sweden – only about 300 tons - and most of it was in Portugal. At that time there were probably around 3000 tons in the country. So I thought here was one interesting possibility…
Land in Portugal: You searched and talked with Portuguese people trying to understand what was happening at the time. What’s the image you have of the country in the forties?
Robert Wilson: In England people write diaries and they keep records all the time, of what is happening. There are personal accounts and that sort of things. In Portugal this was the time of Salazar and people were afraid and so they didn’t keep that kind of accounts. That was the most difficult thing, finding information about what was happening.
When I went up to Fundão, for example, I met one journalist there and I asked for some newspapers from the 1940’s for research. He told me he could give them to me, but it would help me much because of the censorship of the time.
It was necessary to find people that had been around at that time. Meeting one or two people was enough to have one impression of what was going on: entire villages in Alentejo were just leaving their fields and coming up to the Beira, because a rock of Wolfram was worth a month’s money. There was this fever that went through Portugal. Suddenly there was a chance for everybody to make their fortune.
Land in Portugal: When you start digging into this period you get contradictory information. This was a fascist country with a big control over the population. But on this particular period it looks as if there was a loose of that control. It was at least a strange period.
Robert Wilson: That was certainly the first impression I had.
You see that there were centers of control, like Lisbon. You felt that that the city was under control. I remember some research I was making on people commenting the noise that people were making every night, at nine o’clock. It sounded like gunshots. But when asked you were told you that people were only allowed to beat their carpets at night. You realize that this was a very controlled society.
But in Beira suddenly there was not such control.
You also had lots of influences there. You had British there. You had Germans there. You had Portuguese and Spanish business people there.
There was also lots of smuggling going on also.
In the area there was not such control and there was money, and money makes people do things that they ordinarily would not do.
I remember trying to decide, just looking at a map, where the smuggling would have taken place. To me, looking, it looked that the Serra da Malcata, would be a good place for that to happen. I went up there and I verified that there is still smuggling going on there. Not Wolfram, but cigarettes.
They dump the cigarettes of the coast near Aveiro and then they are transporting trough that place…
Land in Portugal: What has surprised you more in your research?
Robert Wilson: It was surprising to me and I was very impressed by Salazar. He had a very difficult game to play.
He was between the Allies and the Axis. They were both applying pressure on him. The Axis was threatening him, basically saying we will cause trouble for you, we will attack your shipping, unless you do as you are told.
The Allies were saying we have the longest peace treaty ever, since 1386, so let’s be friends.
What Salazar did was just play this careful game. He tried to satisfy both sides, and in doing so, he made a tremendous amount of money ob Wolfram.
That was probably the most surprising thing. Salazar came out of WWII as a success story, and I did not expected that. He was a fascist, a great supporter and admirer of Mussolini. I thought he would have been tarnished with that association. But I don’t think he was. He came out of WWII looking very good.
Oficial synopsis from "A small death in Lisbon"
1941. Berlin. Klaus Felsen, businessman and chancer, is drafted into the SS for a special entrepreneurial mission to Portugal. Reluctant to leave his successful, comfortable life in Berlin, the SS shows him he has no choice. And so he arrives in Lisbon and the strangest party in history, where Nazis and Allies, refugees and entrepreneurs dance to the strains of opportunism and despair. Felsen's war takes him to mines in the moutainous north where a brutal battle is being fought for an alloy vital to Hitler's blitzkrieg. There he meets the man who makes the first turn of the wheel of greed and revenge, which rolls through to the century's end.
Late 1990s. Lisbon. Inspector Zé Coelho, a widower with a young daughter, is investigating the murder of a troubled teenage girl. As he digs deeper into all levels of Lisbon society he overturns the dark soil of history and unearths old bones. The 1974 revolution has left some injustices of Salazar's fascist regime unresolved. But there's and older, greater injustice, for which this small death in Lisbon is horrific compensation, and in his final push for the truth Zé must face the most chilling of opposition.
Lisbon 1944. In the torrid summer heat the streets of the Portuguese capital seethe with spies and informers while the endgame of the Intelligence war is silently being fought.
Andrea Aspinall, mathematician and spy, enters this sophisticated, dangerous world as a secretary for an oil company. She stays in the magnificent mansion of a sinister Irish businessman above the casino in Estoril.
Karl Voss, military attaché to the German Legation, arrives from the Eastern front on a secret mission to rescue Germany from complete annihilation.
In the lethal tranquillity of this corrupted paradise the two meet and attempt to find love in a world where no-one can be believed.
After a night of terrible violence, Andrea is left with a lifelong addiction to the clandestine world that takes her from the understated brutality of Salazar's fascist regime, to the paranoia of Cold War Berlin, where she is forced to make the final and the hardest choice.