Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Destination: Portugal

Autumn has made its rainy debut, and many of us at Booksmith are returning from summer vacations and adjusting our thoughts to study or holiday prep (yes, it begins...). Dana sighs with relief as time-off requests trickle and slow. We are settling in again. But just because summer freedoms are over does not mean your travels must come to an end. Personally, I've been to Lisbon several times over the past few years, without ever leaving U.S. soil (or putting in for vacation).

There is a Spain/Portugal/Morocco Let's Go guide book sitting on my nightstand. Don't worry, Dana--my budget won't allow me to take off anytime soon. The travel guide was simply the natural culmination to a series of other books that graced my nightstand before it--namely, the literature of Portugal.

My obsession with Lisbon began with Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which begins, "Here where the earth ends and the sea begins..." For those of you who do not assign much literary merit to travel guides, I actually learned from reading a guidebook that the original referent of this lovely line was actually Portugal's famous 16th century poet Luís Vaz de Camões, who referred to Portugal as a country "where land ends and sea begins." I think it was the very topography of the place, situated at the tip of Europe on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, that first sparked my imaginary journeys to Portugal. In another of Saramago's books, The Stone Raft, the tip of the peninsula breaks off and the entire nation goes drifting across the ocean.

I read Saramago's Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis because I read Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. Pessoa, one of Portugal's most esteemed poets, actually had several identities--at least 72, by his translator, Richard Zenith's, count. These personas were more than just pennames--Pessoa's term was heteronym--one of them wrote Pessoa's only lover letters that rivaled his own. Pessoa's heteronym Bernando Soares narrates his Book of Disquiet, a poetic series of journal entries reflecting on, among other things, the role of art in daily life.

Pessoa, along with another heteronym of his, Ricardo Reis, are the main characters in Saramago's novel, the premise of which is that characters live nine months after the death of their authors and sometimes conduct ghostly conversations with them as they wander the streets of Lisbon, talking about, among other things, the role of art in daily life.

One of the best things about reading geographically (a practice encouraged by our Destination Literature section, shelved according to the Atlas) is discovering the themes that emerge between authors writing out of a shared landscape or culture. More ghostly, melancholic conversations about art and life can be overheard on the streets of Lisbon in John Berger's novel Here is Where We Meet as well as Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story. Both authors, like Saramago, blur the boundaries between the living and the dead, creating a mystical melancholy atmosphere that hovers over the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

In Here is Where We Meet Berger's narrator discovers his deceased mother on a park bench in Lisbon, and sits down to chat. "The dead don't stay where they are buried," she tells him. Sound familiar? In The Following Story Nooteboom's Herman Mussert goes to bed a teacher in Amsterdam and wakes up in Lisbon with a pocket full of Portuguese currency. Like Bernando Soares, Mussert's journey is an attempt to escape his mundane existence (he teaches Latin and Greek) through a transformative journey that carries him, and the reader, beyond life and death, land and sea.

It is hard to draw conclusions about a place the very boundary of which is defined by the shifting tide, but the shared motifs between these books is hard to miss. In the least, each seems to shimmer with the charm of pavement after an autumn rain shower, glistening with fallen leaves. Read them for yourself--it is certainly the season for it. When Ricardo Reis arrives in Lisbon by boat, the city is shrouded in a rainstorm.

Booksmith welcomes the newest member to the Portugal section of Destination Literature: António Lobo Antunes' The Splendor of Portugal , recently published by Dalkey Archive. The book is narrated by a matriarch and her three grown children who have lost the family plantation in the Angolan War of Independence. The novel has only just arrived, so I haven't read this one for myself, but other readers are saying Splendor of Portugal is what would Faulkner might have written, had Faulkner been Portuguese.

My most recent trip to Lisbon was taken through Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Letter to a Hostage. This is a pretty little blue volume published by Pushkin Press--it's not much thicker than a letter; if you put a stamp on it you could post it. Saint-Exupéry writes of Portugal in 1940, when his own native France was a hostage and invasion was imminent in Lisbon.

As he passed through the city on his way to the States, Saint-Exupéry writes that "every town at night appeared like dying embers." And this is how the literature of Portugal calls to me from bookstore shelves--as tiny forgotten chinks of light in a darkening night. "Portugal talked of arts with desperate confidence," Saint-Exupéry writes, "Lacking an army...she had raised...all her sentinels of stone: poets, explorers, conquerors...Who would dare to crush her in her inheritance of so great a past?"

This inheritance, I have discovered, is still very much there for the taking--in fact, the treasure can sit as near as your nightstand, after a trip to your local independent bookstore. You don't have to be someone who reads travel guides in order to fall asleep at night to enjoy the fantastic selection of international titles in the Destination Literature section of our store.

1 comment:

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Ahh, three cheers for the armchair traveler! I admire Saramago very much, but he's my husband's favorite writer.