To get at even a modicum of what I wanted to know about Portugal, which I visited for the first time this March, would have required a good bit of research, preferably in the context of a university course. (I wondered, for example, what impact Portugal’s colonialist history and the Salazar dictatorship might have on its current collective mind.)
Aside from a Rough Guide of Portugal and the Time Out guide to Lisbon, I carried one novel: António Lobo Antunes’s The Splendor of Portugal. I’d read a bit of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry and prose, not by any means enough, and a couple of José Saramago novels. I knew nothing of Portuguese art or music and next to nothing about its history and culture. My grasp of the language is nonexistent—improved while there only to the extent of attaining some fluency with when and how to say “olá” and “obrigado/obrigada”—though as to the latter, I wasn’t able to discern the rules for correct usage. I suppose the only other thing to my “credit” is that I managed to remember names of places I visited well enough to offer a rough pronunciation, when required.
I recognize that at least some of my yawning gap in knowledge could have been corrected had I taken time beforehand to study up, but I resisted the temptation. This was, after all, to be a vacation for the primary purpose of R&R, so I decided not to plunge headlong into information-gathering, but rather to experiment with letting things come to me and discovering what landed and what fell away.
The Splendor of Portugal is a brilliant book, so brilliant I’m soon to seek out more of Antunes’s work. Here is a passage that speaks to the whole, including the Tracie Morris-like cadences and rhythms of its prose:
My father used to say that the thing we came in search of in Africa wasn’t wealth and power but black people with no wealth and power to speak of who could give us the illusion of wealth and power, and that even if we actually had those two things we wouldn’t really have them because we were merely tolerated, begrudgingly accepted in Portugal, looked down upon the same way we looked down upon the Bailundos who worked for us and thus in a way we were blacks to them the same way that blacks owned other blacks and those blacks owned other blacks still, in descending steps that led all the way down to the depths of misery, cripples, lepers, the slaves of slaved, dogs, my father used to explain that the thing we came in search of in Africa was to transform the revenge of ordering other people around into what we pretended was the dignity of ordering other people around, living in houses that aped European houses and which any European would despise, looking down on our houses the same way we in turn looked down on the straw huts, with the exact same repulsion and the exact same disdain, bought or built with money that was worth less than European money, money that was good for nothing except for the cruelty by which it was gained, money that for all intents and purposes was nothing more than seashells and colorful beads, because
as my father used to say [Splendor 338-9]
Needless to say, my selection of reading sat in an uneasy, often unbridgeable, juxtaposition to the touristic delights of our trip.
So there I was, arriving in Lisbon after a red-eye flight, dragging my suitcase and jet-lagged self into our first self-catering quarters. At that point, I had no thoughts at all, lofty or otherwise, except determination to have a nap, no matter the damage it might do to the adjustment of my internal clock.
“And where will you be visiting while in Portugal?” said the lovely Silvia after showing us around and drawing places on the tourist map which, in our jet-lagged state, we despaired of being able to take in. “I wish I could tell you where, after Lisbon, but the name evades me completely.” Abashed, I looked it up and showed her. “Zambujeira do Mar. You will love it.” There is something softly sibilant about Portuguese. Not what I expected, and like no language I’ve heard before. “If only I could pronounce it.” “You can. Just try.” I tried, and failed.
Lisbon, Day 1, Castelo de São Jorge
From our quarters in the Chiado district, we could glimpse the Castelo de São Jorge (named, in the 14th C, after the warrior-saint George). That was cause enough to hop on Tram 28 and let it carry us up to the castle for a look. In Lisboa, What the Tourist Should See, Fernando Pessoa wrote of it:
Almost in front of the Limoeiro is the Rua da Saudade, which leads to Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle). The tourist who has time to spare should not miss going up to this castle which is built on an eminence which commands a view of the Tagus and of a great part of the city. The castle has three chief doors, known as Trason, Martim Moniz, and São Jorge doors. The three are very ancient. The castle itself is remarkable enough. It was built by the Moors and formed, so it seems, part of the defences of Lisbon, with its thick walls, its battlements and its towers. There did kings dwell; and it was the scene of many a remarkable event in the political history of Portugal.
Nowadays, though surrounded and choked by a great number of houses, full of barracks, modified, spoilt and mutilated by earthquakes and misuse, it is still worth seeing for what it once was. The view from the castle is marvellous.
The barracks are no longer there, but the views certainly are.
Lisbon, Day 2, Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
Out of our trip to Finland and Tallinn in Estonia, I’ve developed a notion that 20th C European art might hold a key to a country’s emergence out of more generalized European influences toward discovery of its individualized “modern” self. I’d hoped to test that theory on viewing contemporary art in Portugal. A critical museum for this purpose was under construction during our visit, but the Centro de Arte Moderna at the Gulbenkian Foundation had on display a selection of works, including Portuguese artists, that at least began to tell a tale. The current special exhibits, of work by German Hein Semke (1899-1995), who emigrated to Portugal after participating, at age eighteen, in the First World War, and Belgian Ana Torfs (b. 1963), who lives and works in Brussels, told powerful tales of their own.
Links to painters represented in the slides:
Carlos Botelho, Lisbon (1899-1982)
Graça Pereira Coutinho, Lisbon (1949- )
Esperanza Huertas, Spain (1925-2014)
Leonor Antunes, Lisbon (1972- ); more here
Vasco Araújo, Lisbon (1975- )
Jorge Varanda (b. in Luanda, Angola, 1953-d. Lisbon, 2008)
Ana Vidigal, Lisbon (1960- )
Ana Vieira (b. Coimbra, 1940-d. Lisbon, 2016)
Credits: Sources for quotations are as linked in the text. A useful review of Antunes’s book may be found here. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.