Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Portugal’

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 15 comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 20 comments

The Memorables by Lídia Jorge (2014) French title: Les Mémorables. Translated by Geneviève Leibrich.

Elle serrait contre elle la copie des plans dessinés par la main de celui qui, trente ans plus tôt, avait mis en marche cinq mille hommes contre un régime décrépit, un de ces régimes si long et si séniles qu’ils laissent du fumier sur la terre pour plusieurs siècles. She held to her chest a copy of the maps designed by the man who, thirty years before, had led five thousand men against a decrepit regime. It was one of those long and senile regimes that left manure on earth for several centuries.

“She” is Ana Maria Machado, a young Portuguese journalist who works for CBS in Washington DC. The five thousand men mentioned in this quote are the military men who participated in the coup d’état on April 25th, 1974 in Lisbon, the one that led to the Carnation Revolution and the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship.

After reportages in war zones, Ana Maria’s boss asks her to go back to Lisbon and film a documentary about the Carnation Revolution and the miracle of this peaceful revolution where the military takes power to bring democracy to their country.

Ana Maria is reluctant to go back to Lisbon where she has unresolved issues with her father, Ántonio Machado, a famous political editorialist whose column always proved to be insightful. He was also close to the people who did the revolution. Ana Maria needs a crew for her mission and rekindles a working relationship with Margarida and Miguel Ângelo, two reporters she knew in journalism school.

Ana Maria decides against telling her father about her project, mostly because she doesn’t want him to interfere with her vision of the events. In Ántonio’s office, she borrows a picture taken on 21st of August 1975, in a restaurant, the Memories. This picture portrays all the people who were decisive participants in the revolution and close witnesses of the events. This photo will be the Ariadne thread of the documentary.

Ana Maria and her friends want to reconstruct the minutes this 25 of April 1974 and understand what everyone did and when. They will go and interview these key actors or their widow to discover what they did that day, how they felt, how they lived afterwards and how they reflect on the revolution, thirty years later.

Lídia Jorge autopsies the military coup that brought democracy to her country but more importantly, she questions what happened to the major players of the Carnation Revolution. Her book was published in 2014, for the fortieth anniversary of the 25 of April 1974 events. Ana Maria writes her story six years after she did her documentary and what she narrates happened in 2004, for the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. Symbolic years. Time and remembrance are important in her book.

I wanted to read about the Carnation Revolution and it gave me a better vision of what happened and how extraordinary it was to have such a smooth transition to democracy. Lídia Jorge points out two disconcerting facts about these events: one, the major actors of the military coup were never properly thanked and none had a glorious career after that. And two, they were forgotten from the public. This is very different from what Petros Markaris describes about Greece in Bread, Education, Freedom or what Yasmina Khadra writes about Algeria in Dead Man’s ShareBoth Markaris and Khadra explain how the actors of the country’s liberation cashed on their being on the right side, either during the decisive demonstration against the Greek regime or against the French. In these two countries, these men became untouchable heroes, grabbed on power and didn’t let it go.

According to The Memorables, no heroes were born from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Ana Maria knew the men on the photo because her parents gravitated in their circle. Margarida and Miguel Ângelo had to research them. Lídia Jorge wants to celebrate them, to remind them to the Portuguese and show how ungrateful the Republic was towards them. None of them benefited from their act.

In addition to the questioning about the place they have in the Portuguese collective memory, Lídia Jorge muses over the impact of living through such historical events. How do you go back to normal after that? How does one leave their glorious days behind and go on with a mundane everyday life? How do you survive to the I-was-there-and-part-of-it syndrome? There is a before and an after the 25th April 1974 for all the Portuguese who were old enough at the time to grasp the importance of this day, but for the people who prepared the coup and succeeded, how does the rest of your life measure up to this? (I’ve always wondered how Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr survived to being a Beatle)

Ana Maria’s personal story is also linked to the 25th of April. That day, her mother, Machado’s lover, was supposed to fly back to her country, Belgium. The beginning and the excitement of the Carnation Revolution convinced to stay in Portugal. So, Ana Maria’s existence is also an outcome of the revolution. As mentioned before, her parents were close to the new power and knew the key players. Coming back to Lisbon is a personal journey for her. She’s estranged from her father and never saw her mother again after she divorced her father when she was twelve. She doesn’t want him to ask questions about her current assignment and therefore avoids asking questions herself. They live together but barely talk to each other. This added a dimension to the novel.

What can I say about my response to The Memorables? Honestly, sometimes I found it very tedious to read. When I read Dubliners, I wondered Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce? because there were so many precise political details in the short stories that I felt I was missing vital clues in the stories. I felt the same here and I wondered if I needed to be Portuguese to fully understand the meaning of The Memorables. All the historical characters mentioned in the novel through a nickname are pathetic in the interviews with Ana Maria and her friends. It’s puzzling. They all have issues and are eccentric. How real are they? It made the book difficult to read and I don’t know how much is true and how much comes from the novelist’s licence. On top of that, Ana Maria is not exactly a warm character and it’s hard to root for her. And that’s probably the major problem I had with The Memorables. I was never fully engaged in the reporters’ quest. It could have been suspenseful and it wasn’t, except for the last 100 pages when Ana Maria uncovers her father’s secrets.

All in all, I’m glad I read it but it was not an agreeable read. I’d love to hear about your response to it. Alas, this is not available in English so none of my English-speaking followers will have read it. So, I’d be glad to hear from French and Portuguese readers who might have read it.

Street Art in Lisbon. Salgueiro Maia, member of the MFA, the “Armed Forces Movement”

Literary escapade: Lisbon and Pessoa

August 9, 2017 49 comments

After spending a few days in Lisbon, it’s hard to ignore Pessoa. Lisbon celebrates him everywhere and not just by putting him on T-Shirts for tourists. One of his  favourite cafés, Café Restaurante Martinho da Arcada…

has a plaque on it about Pessoa and the whole restaurant room is decorated with pictures of him.

Another of his favorite cafés, A Brasileira has his statue on their terrasse. You can sit near Pessoa and take a picture.

It reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s statue in Galway.

As a major poet of the 20th century, Pessoa’s body has been transferred to the prestigious Mosteiro dos Jerónimos for the 50th anniversary of his death.

His picture is on the shop window of bookstores

His books are well stocked in bookshops. They even have them in English and in French.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to visit his house, which is now a museum. I would have liked to see his library.

In the Alentejo region, there’s a museum about coffee and Pessoa has his own corner because he embodied the culture of cafés, just like his contemporary generation of writers in Budapest.

DSC_4634

In the end, I like this painting of him by José De Almada Negreiros.

Tableau_Pessoa

Now that I’ve seen him everywhere, I suppose I should read him. Yes, I must confess that I haven’t read him…yet. I have The Anarchist Banker on my kindle and I’ll come to it sooner or later. I know I should read The Book of Disquiet but it’s on the Daunting Books List, along with Ulysses, Dom QuixoteMoby Dick, Satantango and others. I’m not sure I’m deep enough to read Pessoa and fully understand The Book of Disquiet. I’m not good with poetry either which doesn’t help but the idea of an anarchist banker intrigues me, though, so I’ll start small with this one.

Have you read anything by him? If yes, what would you recommend? In case, you have reviewed one of his books, please leave a link to your review in the comment section.

PS: Sorry for the poor quality of the photos. I’m afraid that my skills as a photographer have not improved.

 

 

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

March 8, 2015 29 comments

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi (1997). French title: La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro, translated by Bernard Comment.

Tabucchi_DamascenoManolo, an old Gypsy living in a shanty town near Porto discovers the corpse of a headless man. Where is the head of the victim? Who is it? Who was so interested in hiding the identity of the dead man? Acontecimento, a popular newspaper of Lisbon sends a young reporter to Porto to investigate and write about the affair. The mystery of the beheaded corpse is right up their alley. Their reporter is Firmino who’s studying literature in Lisbon and writes as a sensation journalist for a living until he finishes his thesis about post-war Portuguese literature.

Firmino is not exactly happy to go to Porto. It interrupts his work on his thesis, his girl-friend is in Lisbon and he dislikes Porto as the city is attached to childhood memories of a boring aunt. But duty calls and he goes anyway. The newspaper has booked him a room in a boarding house managed by Dona Rosa. Soon, mysterious callers fill our young reporter with leads to help him with his articles and he finds himself more and more involved as an investigation reporter. He will get back up from a lawyer known as Loton. He’s a quirky man, coming from old money and willing to work pro-bono if it helps justice. Firmino and Loton engage in literate conversations and help each other on the case. As the investigation leads to incriminate the authorities, Firmino and Loton make a good pair. Firmino gets scoops for the newspaper and since details are published in a national newspaper, they can’t be buried which in return helps Loton.

The starting point of The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is a true story. In 1996, Carlos Rosa was killed in similar circumstances in the suburb of Lisbon. However, the novel is a lot more than a crime investigation. It also pictures Portugal after 20 years of democracy, the fragility of its institutions and the inequalities. While the reader wants to know how it will end, Tabucchi discusses the idea of justice and its transcription in law. To be honest, I’m not sure I was able to follow these parts. Abstract thinking is not my forte and I was lost in the literary references.

I liked Firmino a lot. For me, he’s the embodiment of the concept of saudade. I enjoyed following him in the streets of Porto, looking at buildings, going to restaurants (The poor guy can’t stand tripe and it’s Porto’s special dish) and meeting with people. He’s young and full of doubt about his writing and at the same time full of hope for the future. Loton the eccentric loner could become a mentor to him, someone to have challenging conversations with.

ManoloThe novel also opens with a poignant chapter about Manolo the Gypsy, his living conditions and his being a pariah. Tabucchi recalls how the Gypsies used to live in Andalusia at the time they were still breeding horses. Manolo is old and the weight of the years eroded his pride. The nostalgia seeping through this chapter reminded me of a childhood story, Le voyage de Manolo by Chantal de Marolles. It was about a little Gypsy whose parents traded the caravan and horses for a car and a trailer. He missed the old way of life. I loved this story.

It’s hard to say more about the book without spoiling the plot for others. I can’t say I was thrilled by The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro. It is an excellent novel and it shows that the boundaries between literary and crime fiction can be blurry. (Like in Incidences by Philippe Djian). However, I lacked cultural references to understand the intricacies of the conversations between Loton and Firmino and this is why I can’t leap from like to love when I think about this book.

Recommended anyway.

To the revolution in a Citroën 2 CV

December 23, 2012 14 comments

Alla rivoluzione sulla Due Cavalli by Marco Ferrari 1995 French title: En 2CV vers la révolution. I didn’t find it in English.

April 25th, 1974. When Vasco, a Portuguese young man who studies cinema in Paris hears about the uprising in Portugal, he runs to his best friend Victor and talks him into driving to their native city, Lisbon. So the novella is a road trip in a decrepit 2 CV from Paris to Lisbon, through the quiet of the French countryside, through a Spain closed up in fear, full of policemen along the roads and to the disquiet in Lisbon. Communists or revolutionaries or separatists? Who are they, the ones who help Vasco and Victor cross the border between France and Spain through the Pyrenees?

What struck me is how French people seem to live in a bubble:

A quatre heures de l’après-midi Poitiers n’est qu’un jeu d’ombres et de lueurs, la moitié des toits embrassée par le soleil, l’autre moitié obscurcie par Notre-Dame-La-Grande. Les gens se promènent dans les rues piétonnes, discutent dans les cafés, les hommes boivent le Pastis, les femmes le thé, les enfants mangent des tartes : on dirait un monde à l’écart, intangible, sans émotion au regard de ce qui se passe autour, le garrot franquiste, la révolte portugaise, les assassinats en Espagne, les bombes italiennes, les lamentations du Chili, les cris de l’Europe de l’Est. At 4pm, Poitiers is only shadows and lights, the sun set half of the roofs aglow while Notre-Dame-La-Grande shadows  the other half. People stroll in the pedestrian streets, chat in cafés, the men drink pastis, the women drink tea and children eat pies. It seems a world apart, intangible, without any emotion regarding what happens next door. The pro-Franco gag, the rebellion in Portugal, the murders in Spain, the bombings in Italy, the lamentations in Chile, the cries in Eastern Europe.

Ferrari_2CVThis was certainly true there and it is still true now. How little we hear about the economic situation in Spain, Portugal or Ireland. I’m not talking about statistics or complicated negotiations in Brussels. I’m thinking about people’s everyday life. I was in a meeting in Madrid recently and I arrived earlier than expected. No traffic jam. My host explained that with the high level of unemployment, more people staying at home means…less cars on the roads. Reading regularly collides with reality. The same week I read this book, I read an article about Portuguese students and their attitude towards recession. The journalist mentioned the irony of these young people emigrating again to find a job. He also pointed out incomprehension between today’s youth and their parents who grew up under the dictatorship. Vasco’s children, I thought.

Marco Ferrari is Italian; I don’t know why he chose to write about that particular spring in Portugal. I’m too young to remember about the time Europe included dictatorships; this novella made the dictatorship in Portugal more tangible. I realized I didn’t even know the name of the political police in Portugal, the PIPE and I wondered how it is possible to ignore such a thing about a European country. It reminded me how I felt after watching The Lives of Others; to think it happened so close to home without a real consciousness of it was unsettling. Perhaps I understand better why the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU now. Troubled times are not that far away.

This book put me face to face with my ignorance of the history of other European countries. In addition to these thought-provoking details, this novella is full of encounters with more or less nice, serviceable, crazy, nasty human beings. Ferrari’s prose is rather funny and strong emotions pervade through the text. For Vasco, memories of the past mingle into his present, interrupted by his internal monologues to François Truffaut. There are beautiful passages about cinema. And the 2 CV is a character in itself. A classic car by now, a cheap, reliable popular car by then.

Sur la route, la 2 CV est une cible toute désignée pour les policiers. Selon eux, les propriétaires de 2 CV jaunes sont des exhibitionnistes, et, pour cette raison, ils les ont à l’œil. Une 2 CV couleur sable est tolérable, passe encore pour une anonyme 2 CV blanche, ou bien violette, style féminin, mais cette couleur si évidente, si particulière ou recherchée, presque provocatrice, ne peut être que la marque d’une excentricité certaine. Les flics la coincent au fond de l’avenue : ils l’ont repérée pendant qu’elle doublait la file de camions qui semblent presque endormis après la pause du repas chez Les Routiers. On the road, a yellow 2CV is an easy target for policemen. According to them, owners of a yellow 2CV are exhibitionists and for this reason, they keep their eyes on them. A sandy 2CV is tolerable, so is an anonymous white 2CV or a purple one, feminine style. But this showy colour, odd or studied, almost provocative can only mean powerful eccentricity. The cops corner her at the end of the avenue: they have noticed her as she was overcoming the long line of lorries who seemed almost sleepy after their lunch break at Les Routiers.

Note: Les Routiers is a kind of cheap restaurant where lorry drivers (un routier) go. They serve traditional and filling food.

Vasco praises the qualities and the endurance of his 2 CV, how these cars are involved in treks and rallies. Once she breaks down and they find help in a member of the local 2 CV club. (Note to foreigners: there isn’t a widespread automobile club in France like The AA in England) This car is a symbol of these years, it’s the car Mafalda’s father buys in Quino’s comics. It reminds us the time when owning a car meant social status and freedom.

I bought this novella in a second hand bookshop (the French word for this is bouquiniste, like bookish-shop, isn’t that nice?) The title caught my eyes and the blurb hooked me. Of course, the irony of a writer named Ferrari writing about a road trip in a 2 CV wasn’t lost on me. Sometimes compulsory book buying leads you to funny and unexpected books.

%d bloggers like this: