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The Bull Is Not Killed

by Sarah Dearing

Some of the best love stories are set against the background of great events. Think of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The English Patient. Sarah Dearing, while not yet in the same league as Hemingway or Ondaatje, has nevertheless written an engaging romance that takes place in Portugal in the days leading up to the 1974 Revolution. That was when a group of young army officers almost bloodlessly overthrew a 48-year old fascist dictatorship.

The Bull Is Not Killed opens in February of that fateful year as Luis, a young unemployed university graduate, meditates on his destiny at the edge of the sea. He encounters Luisa, a beautiful gypsy girl, and falls immediately in love with her. Much of the novel tells how he tries to find her again, and how she escapes from an arranged marriage in order to return his love.

Behind all this is Portugal’s dismal economic and political situation in the early 1970s. For many years Portugal had been fighting colonial wars in Africa, trying to hold onto the colonies left over from the age of discovery. Luis, the young lover, would like to sing the praises of that era, writing exciting stories about Portuguese explorers.

No matter that another Luis, surnamed vas de Camôes, already did that in his epic poem The Lusiade several hundred years ago. A bigger problem for our Luis is trying to figure out how to fill his new fountain pen. Significantly, Montiego, a former army officer and now a policeman, comes to his aid.

Montiego also comes to the aid of the forces of justice and freedom when, shortly thereafter, he links up with the group of insurgent army officers. Luis and Luisa are in Lisbon for the April 25 Revolution, too, although their love story is more important to them than politics.

The novel’s title comes from the fact that the bull is not killed in Portuguese bullfights. The book makes reference to this only once, but its title is indicative of Dearing’s admiration for the Portuguese who appear to have discovered how to make massive changes humanely. Name another revolution where only five people were killed and where prosperity actually did follow the fighting.