Friday, November 25, 2011


7. NYC 1972 Arrives in Lisbon

In the Castle of St. George--built by the Arabs in the 11th century and from which they were expelled after a 5-month-siege toward the end of the 12th, there is an historical overview in which the clay pots of the founding Phoenicians and the occupying Romans are better-preserved than those of the Arabs who actually developed this city. Why is that? Was Samuel Huntington clattering around in the armor of a 12th century lifetime?

The castle grounds are swarming with tourists, even at this chilly tag-end of November. I'm swaddled in layers and shocked by a couple climbing up to a cannon--the young man in knee-length plaid surfer shorts, the young woman in a sleeveless pink floral tank top--who remind me of the purple-legged tourists that used to show up in shorts to Birkenstock the snow-laden Santa Fe plaza in January. Almost.

This is the mirador spot of the city, yet suddenly I crave the perspective that Harry Lime put forth at the top of the ferris wheel/wheel of fortune in the Graham Greene/Sir Carol Reed collaboration filmed in post-war Vienna, The Third Man. Harry was on the run from his criminal trampling of the people he saw as ants from the height of his flight, before his imminent crash and scramble through the sewers to his death.

All very sober cinematography, the negative perhaps from which the sunny positive image of Lisbon is printed?

I go out through the turnstiles, and cross the tiny street to enter a souvenir shop, where suddenly it is the end of December--not of 1936 when Saramago's novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis dumps Reis back on the streets of Lisbon, but of 1972, as I walk down a New York City street just south of Lincoln Center wearing a vintage Peck and Peck raspberry tweed suit and matching over-the-knee-suede boots, on my way to an MLA convention interview with Vassar College, when from the swinging doors of a record store wafts the Jimmy Cliff song that was a hit that year for Johnny Nash:

"I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blilnd
It's gonna be a bright bright sunshiny day"

and it's the same old song, but with a different meaning here in Lisbon, a day after the frustrated general strike, where everybody claims to speak English--and nobody does. Except me, of course. And I prefer not to.

We are perverse ants, Harry Lime, and none of us will survive this life; more to the point, we will soon be frozen in time, as in amber. Or, if we are exceptional ants, our ashes will be spaded into the earth to fertilize an apparently dead olive tree in front of the Casa dos Bicos, just in a bit from the river's edge, as the ashes of José Saramago recently were.

Perhaps the ashes of such a creative man, militant leftist to his last breath, will bring the tree back to life. Then again, his having received the Nobel Prize for Literature may put the final nail in the olive tree's figurative coffin. We shall see in April, when the Saramago Foundation opens its doors.

The odds, after all, are the same for all living beings, including olive trees: 50/50; either we live, or we don't.

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