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The poetry of Portugal

There are few other countries in the world where poets are celebrated as national heroes, and where monuments to them make for landmarks

A view of Lisbon. Photo: iStockphoto
A view of Lisbon. Photo: iStockphoto

The first time I heard it, I ignored it. But then our spirited Sandemans walking tour guide, Rita Jardim, a 31-year-old former Portuguese TV actor, reiterated: “All our happy people went to Brazil. They took the sun with them."

I was on vacation in Portugal with my husband last week—chiefly Lisbon and Porto. We had been walking around Lisbon for close to 3 hours, and had paused at a terrace with a spectacular view of the city, when she said this. Below us, the city’s undulating landscape spread out with views of red terracotta rooftops, walls painted in yellow, pink and blue, and others tiled with intricate Azulejo squares. There was artful graffiti everywhere, some of it even government-sponsored. Sure, there were the poor and peeling neighbourhoods of Mouraria and Alfama, but even New York has Harlem and Washington Heights. This did not look like a city of sad people, we demurred.

This was because we were yet to experience fado. Sometimes described as the “soundtrack of Lisbon", it is profoundly melancholic music, mostly about departed sailors and lost lovers. When we went to a fado parlour the next evening, we were told not to be surprised if we saw people leaving the place weeping. Through the blur of Latinate words, saudade came through with the guitar notes a little too often.

Saudade entered my lexicon with one of those “words that cannot be translated into English" viral lists a few years ago (I wish I had a better story). It is a romantic notion perhaps as popular with millennials as the Valencia photo filter—there are more than eight million posts tagged #saudade or #saudades on Instagram as of this week. A working translation is “a deep longing or nostalgia for something that is absent". Our taxi driver in Porto had a far more poetic but perplexing one: “déjà vu of something that hasn’t happened yet".

The idea of a gloomy people who need colourful walls and government-sanctioned graffiti to lift their spirits, of fado parlours, and of a culture that coined the word saudade, adds up.

The Portuguese had great success as world traders but that meant long voyages at sea. It meant departed lovers and mothers who wouldn’t see their sons again. Besides, the early conquests were overshadowed by serial losses later. And then there was the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that led to near-destruction of the capital city. Apart from swallowing almost all of Lisbon, it also swallowed the Portuguese sense of pride and identity. “We see the Brazilians dancing…we see the Rio carnival…it doesn’t feel like they could have ever been our people," says Jardim.

A statue of the poet Fernando Pessoa outside the city’s best-known café, A Brasileira. Photo: Shutterstock
A statue of the poet Fernando Pessoa outside the city’s best-known café, A Brasileira. Photo: Shutterstock

The earthquake, which was followed by raging fires and a tsunami, led to seismic shifts in the theological sphere that are now well recorded. Many texts of that period pointed to the alleged sinful life of Lisbon’s population as the cause of the catastrophe, according to Helena Murteira’s paper The Lisbon Earthquake Of 1755: The Catastrophe And Its European Repercussions. Superstition seeped into the religious reaction to the event. It is said that in Portugal, on the day of the earthquake, priests walked around the ruined city exhorting people to confess their sins in order to pacify God’s anger against Lisbon.

In a philosophical turn, which lingers today, the catastrophe influenced the European Enlightenment. It contributed to a change of perspective with regard to optimism, which characterized late 18th century thought. For Voltaire, Lisbon’s devastation was the evidence that optimism, as presented by Alexander Pope, was an outdated concept. To put it simply, the Great Lisbon Earthquake killed optimism.

What lived on, not in spite but perhaps because of this very sense of doom, is poetry.There are few other cities in the world where poets are celebrated as national heroes, and where monuments to them make for landmarks. The meeting point for the walking tour in Lisbon was under a statue of the 16th century poet Luis de Camões, standing on a pedestal with other smaller statues of classical Portuguese authors. His epic, Os Lusíadas, is a staple of the national school curriculum. Lisbon’s best-known café, A Brasileira, a meeting place for several generations of intellectuals and artists, is fronted by a statue of the poet Fernando Pessoa sitting on a chair, recalling the days when he used to write at this café. In Porto, an iconic monument is of the writer José Maria de Eça de Queiros, considered to have been the greatest Portuguese writer in the realist style, whom English critics ranked alongside Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy.

At Lisbon’s Bertrand, the world’s oldest operating book store, there are entire stalls dedicated to Pessoa. I wanted to buy his Book Of Disquiet; I already have a copy, but I wanted one stamped by the oldest book store in the world. One of the salesmen actually dissuaded me, saying, “Why would you take home the prose of a poet when you can have the poetry?" So I bought a volume called Forever Someone Else, which compiles poems from four of the poet’s many heteronyms—he had at least 70 imaginary characters with distinct, corresponding literary styles.

In Portugal, saudade and poetry are living things. On the flight back home, I saw a Portuguese movie called Where I Grow Old (A Cidade Onde Envelheço), a 2016 film about two young Portuguese women trying to put down roots in Brazil. One of them spends almost the entire length of the narrative missing Portugal. I imagine she had many Instagram posts tagged #saudade.

I can define my takeaway from Portugal by what I carried back: three pairs of handcrafted leather shoes, four bottles of vintage port, and six books of poetry.

When Spring returns
Perhaps I will no longer be in the world.
Today I wish I could think of Spring as a person
So that I could imagine her crying for me
When she sees that she’s lost her only friend.
But Spring isn’t even a thing:
It’s a manner of speaking.
Not even the flowers or green leaves return.
There are new flowers, new green leaves.
There are new balmy days.
Nothing returns, nothing repeats, because everything is real

—Fernando Pessoa (as Alberto Caeiro), 1915

Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose

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