Sunday, November 20, 2011


1. Is Lisbon a Hallucination?

Antonio Tabucchi's novel, Réquiem, which was also made into a film by Alain Tanner, is subtitled: A Hallucination because during the course of one Sunday afternoon in Lisbon, the narrator has a sequence of close encounters with dead people, including his father, his best friend, his mistress and even Fernando Pessoa, whose ghost appears to be more alive than ever on the pavingstones of this city. (Yesterday I even saw him, as well as his several alter-egos, clattering across the chests of tee shirts in a shop off the Praça do Commerciio where I had paused on my afternoon walk to buy a ceramic nacimiento for the upcoming Christmas in my mini-loft in Mexico.)

It has become almost a tradition to encounter Pessoa here, even though he died in the 1930s--the book that brought José Saramago to the attention of many readers, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, has his spirit popping up like a mushroom almost daily over the course of a number of months.

With so many dead people making their appearance here, I wonder if it is all a dream, or if Lisbon has simply floated loose from its moorings on the river Tajo, like the Iberian peninsula in Saramago's The Stone Raft, and is out there in the ozone somewhere preparing for its reinsertion once the economic crisis crunches to closure.

Pessoa pinned down at least the illusion of Lisbon's corporality by constantly pressing it under his feet. And just to add another layer, he even wrote a travel guide to Lisbon: What the Tourist Ought to See, in 1925.

Then , as now, Pessoa was right and the heart of the web is Rossio--Praça don Pedro IV--which takes its name from the statue of don Pedro IV and dates, according to Pessoa, from 1870. It is almost 27 meters high. As it happens, I am staying in a pension just off and just above the plaza. (In Lisbon pensions differ from hotels in that they usually occupy one or more upper floors of a building, but never the street level, and because of their apparent improvised character, one expects them to be cheaper than hotels.)

My room in the pension is long and narrow, reminiscent perhaps of the niches in the cemetery visted by Tabucchi's narrator in Réquiem in search of his best friend, Tadeus, and from it I look down on the Rossio which at most hours is teeming with unusually peripatetic immigrants from Portugal's previous African colonies, Angola and Mozambique.

Last night as I returned from eating a soporific saline solution of suckling pig in a "traditional" restaurant on the rua das Portas de Santo Antão, floating down the cobbles like an angel was a very tall African woman, dressed completely in white from head covering to toes. As she passed by me I noticed the infant on her back, also capped in white and tucked into a woolly knitted wrap resembling the rebozos used by the indigenous women in Mexico for the same purpose. The baby was silent as a doll as its mother answered her tinkling cell phone, not ever breaking pace as she drifted out onto the plaza.

Everywhere you look, something is floating (and I wonder if the very heavy food here is part of a strategy of anchoring folks who would otherwise all be up in the air without aid of the elevators and trams sprinkled around the city). Yesterday, I chose to spill out on the alternate plaza here in the center of it all. Pessoa wrote that the Praça de Figuiera is only two steps from the Rossio, but I have the sense that they actually overlap, as in several cases one enters a pastry shop or a clothing shop fromone plaza and exits into the other.

The Praça de Figueira in a light rain is like a silver platter in which the Castelo de Sâo Jorge, flapping about in the trees on a hill above the old Arab quarter, the Alfama, can admire its reflection. I sat on a bench facing east to take a photograph across the plaza toward the castle, with a crane bobbing in the middle distance as if it had been contracted to move all the pieces around in space: the touristic cable cars, the modern trams skating across the plaza, the castle slithering into the sudden sunlight on the hill.

From the Praça de Figueira it is an easy walk down to the river Tajo, and as along the rua da Prata I don't encounter many shops open on a Saturday afternoon to slow my progress, soon I am crossing the Praça do Commerciio toward the statue of king José I in the center, which Pessoa tells us was cast in one solid piece in 1774, with a height of 14 meters. Tourists of all types are waving digital cameras and cell phones skyward as I screw a red filter onto the lens of my old 35 mm. Olympus and set to work on the clouds floating around above the king's head.

The clouds above the river are heavy with imminent rain, and I decide not to walk out to the end of the dock, as it is only about 2:30, and in Tabucchi's Réquiem Pessoa doesn't arrive until midnight, anyway.

Instead, I decide to anchor myself with the mundanity of shopping for Christmas presents, ramble across the plaza--which Pessoa claims is one of the largest in the world, clearly not having visited either Moscow or Mexico City--and pass through the flamboyant triumphal arch (began in 1755, says Pessoa--without indicating whether that was just before or just after the earthquake--and completed in 1873) into the rua Augusta.

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