I recently had a chance to spend three days (plus an evening) in the beautiful city of Lisbon. Cobblestone streets, wide open plazas and the gentle churning of the Teju River, all accompanied by the zhhh-zhhh sound of spoken Portuguese. Once I'd learned how to properly order uma bica e um pastel de nata, my most basic needs were met.
There was rain, and plenty of it. Living with drought teaches you to love precipitation in all its forms. I destroyed a pair of leather boots walking through history in the rain, and discovered my umbrella has holes in it. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Before the trip I got hold of a copy of The Lives of Things (Objecto Quase), a collection of short stories by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who took the Nobel for Literature in 1998. The first story in the collection tells his imagined history of the actual deck chair whose collapse led to the unexpected death of right-wing dictator António Salazar in 1968. The Centaur is his brilliant and breathtaking story where its horse and human halves are at war with each other, physically, emotionally and erotically. How, for example, can a horse lie down to sleep in a way that will also be comfortable for a man? A political parable, to be sure, but also a heartbreaking story.
I stopped in at Livraria Bertrand, located aptly on Rua Garrett, as any book lover must. After all, it claims to be the oldest bookstore in the Western world. There I picked up a copy of two books by Portugal's wonderfully oddball poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Disquiet Lisbon and a bilingual edition of O Que O Turista Deve Ver/What the Tourist Should See. Like Saramago, Pessoa is one of Portugal's great literary treasures. In addition to his own poetry, he's particularly known for creating a host of alter egos who wrote poetry, were published in leading journals of their day, and even reviewed each others' work. Any chance it's coincidence his last name is also the Portuguese word for person?
A day later, I'm walking under the giant cedar in the middle of the Jardim do Príncipe Real when I spot a VW camper van by the side of the road with matching shelves, quite obviously selling books. I go for a closer look and discover Tell A Story, a small mobile bookstore in a refitted VW camper van that has recently branched out into publishing English language translations of Portuguese writers.
Turns out I've already bought two of their books. Disquiet Lisbon is their truncated edition in English of Pessoa's larger work, The Book of Disquiet. I'd also bought their edition of Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz, a prize-winning novel I can't seem to find anywhere on the English interwebs. The guy I chat with at the Tell A Story van says literature and bookstores are doing fairly well in Portugal, and he suggests a trip to the bookstore at LX Factory, the former textile manufacturing facility-turned-hipster art center.
It's a loooong walk down there, and along the way I'm stopped by French tourists in need of directions. Never mind the fact I was fairly lost at that point. But I eventually find my way to the expansive, book-filled Ler Devagar. The bookstore's name translates as "read slowly." Which of course I think we all should do.
There's so much more to literary Lisbon: watching tourists take photos of themselves arm in arm with the statue of Pessoa; the antiquarian bookstore with dozens of political posters from the anti-colonial movements in Angola and Mozambique. I'll just end here with a quote from Pessoa's disquietude, and a few more photos.
"The part of my life not wasted in thinking up confused interpretations of nothing at all, has been spent making prose poems out of the incommunicable feelings I use to make the unknown universe my own."
Looking for your next book to read? I can recommend all these great indie press books.