Friday, 30 August 2013

Fernando Pessoa, Tourist Guide

“I know, right? By the way, I ever tell you about that time Fernando Pessoa wrote a tourist guide book?”

Fernando Pessoa. His life was so awkward you can drop this question in the middle of a conversation without sounding bizarre. Not many poets had lives that let you get away with it. Your audience just duly files this fact away, next to the four fully-developed poetic personae he invented, the astrological charts that accurately predicted his friends’ deaths, and his helping Aleister Crowley fake a suicide. And yet the irritating impression remains that this is too incongruent, even for him.

Written circa 1925, that is, before the dictatorship, Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See is one of the many projects that attest to Pessoa’s nationalism. Although Pessoa spent his childhood and adolescence in Durban, South Africa, he returned to Portugal to live his life in Lisbon the rest of his life. Deeply nationalistic, and proud of the nation’s glorious past, he conceived many projects to export Portugal’s brand abroad. As the introduction reveals (the edition is bilingual, by the way), this was just one of his many ideas to promote Portuguese culture and identity. One of the most interesting ones involved publishing an English-language monthly magazine called Portugal. The introduction, remarkably informative and full of curious titbits, also explains that his famous symbolic poem Message was to have been called Portugal. Another fact: Pessoa couldn’t afford his own type-writer, so he used the one in the office. This book was found fully typed inside his legendary chest. His work today is mostly collated from the findings in this famous chest. He only published in life a few poems, dispersed throughout countless magazines, and the aforesaid Message; plus prefaces, articles and introductions in several books and newspapers. The Book of Disquiet was a project edited into existence after his death, following his notes. So it’s remarkable and amusing that this tourist guide book, of all things, was finished and ready for publication after his death. And even more curious, in English. Even a century ago Pessoa was acutely aware that to be known means to be known in English. Decades later the novelist António Lobo Antunes would reiterate this notion, with his usual candour: “In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe.”

It surprises me that Pessoa, amongst the first wave of Portuguese modernists, was the most nationalistic; the others were in a hurry to drink from world culture, and in the case of his great friend, António de Sá-Carneiro, he even moved to France, where he committed suicide. But Pessoa had actually studied and lived abroad several years, so his identification with his nation’s past and his pain for its receding importance on the world stage was unexpected, not least of which because he never lost his cosmopolitanism.

Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See is true to its title. This is not a work of art, it’s not one of his hoaxes, like The Education of the Stoic or the pagan philosophies of Antonio Móra. It’s a prosaic, direct tourist guide book for foreigners visiting Lisbon, advising them what sights they should see for maximum delight.

Teresa Rita Lopes, the great Pessoa scholar and author of the introduction, unfairly says that anyone reading it in English will realize Pessoa’s command of the English language isn’t as proficient as it is often assumed, and that his fame as a bilingual writer is exaggerated, an opinion anyone will disagree with who has read his many English poems. For my part, I skipped the translation and read the original, and found it fluid and readable, if not aesthetically laudable. Pessoa didn’t speak to his countrymen but to foreigners and he’s direct, clear and terse. He aims to inform, not to please.

Another reason I loved reading the English original is, paradoxically, to get a flavour of how the Portuguese language used to look like almost a century ago. Ours used to be a very Latinate language before a series of pointless spelling reforms starting in 1911 butchered the spelling of words, places and names. Pessoa all his life refused to change his spelling and it shows in the names of the monuments; he was a liberal in the British tradition and believed the state had no right to interfere with the way language developed. To the British tourist, who isn’t used to seeing his language’s spelling change every thirty years, he may wonder why Pessoa writes Theatro Nacional Almeida Garret and the translation Teatro Nacional Almeida Garrett; or, when he urges the tourist to visit the Praça Luiz de Camões, why the translation has it changed to Praça Luís de Camões. Teresa Rita Lopes doesn’t explain this in her introduction, so the amateur expert that I am feels obliged to do so.

But let us enter Lisbon:

   Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many-coloured mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered.
   For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of the delightful seat, of this blessed region.
   The tourist’s wonder begins when the ship approaches the bar, and, after passing the BUGIO lighthouse – that little guardian-tower at the mouth of the river, built three centuries ago on the plan of Friar João Turriano –, the castled TOWER OF BELEM appears, a magnificent specimen of sixteenth century military architecture, in the romanic-gothic-moorish style. As the ship moves forward, the river grows more narrow, soon to widen again, forming one of the largest natural harbours in the world, with ample anchorage for the greatest of fleets. Then, on the left, the masses of houses cluster brightly over the hills. That is LISBON.

The entrance to Lisbon could only be made from the sea, of course, symbol of our imperial greatness, of the great discoveries that took us to Africa, Asia and South America. Pessoa, curiously, was not the first Portuguese writer to write a Lisbon guide book for travellers. In 1554 Damião de Góis, historian, royal chronicler, keeper of the royal archives, and humanist, wrote in Latin the Urbis Olisiponis description, a short description of the Lisbon of the time, to send to his many acquaintances in Europe (like the poet Sá de Miranda, he was one of our bridges to the Renaissance since he travelled extensively in Europe, meeting Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Erasmus, Pietro Bembo and Albrecht Dürer, who painted him), curious about Portugal. Lisbon at his time was one of the most important cities in Europe, where ships from all the new lands passed bringing news, new products and curious marvels. Damião de Góis was writing from a different perspective than Pessoa: he was writing about the centre of an Empire in full expansion and growing rich; Pessoa was writing in an empire in decline, practically irrelevant on the world stage. Like Pessoa, Góis begins his description with a ship entering the harbour from the sea and stopping on the margins of the fabled Tejo. Their two guide books also have a few monuments in common: the Holy See atop one of the hills, the Santo António Church (Lisbon’s patron saint), the Tower of Belém. But reading the two also shows how much Lisbon grew and changed since the 16th century. If Góis’ was not a particularly hospitable city, to me anyway, Pessoa’s city is indeed arresting, modern and cosmopolitan.

The Santa Justa Elevator, made in iron. For Pessoa it was one of the city's symbols of modernity.

Acting as the tourist’s ‘cicerone,’ Pessoa takes the would-be traveller all over Lisbon, up and down its hills, to see all that it has to offer in terms of museums, churches, libraries, theatres, public parks, statues and entertainment. This is not just a tour but a history lesson (even for a Portuguese reader like myself) because Pessoa explains also the dates of construction, the names of the architects, and other textbook facts. At the same time we realize, with some sadness, that this Lisbon he describes is not an old city. Most of the dates he gives do not predate the 1755 Earthquake, testimony of the near-total destruction this natural catastrophe wrought and of the efforts to rebuild everything in its wake. In that regard Pessoa doesn’t avoid praising the visionary ruler who rebuilt Lisbon as we know is today, the Marquis of Pombal. Pessoa’s city then is old and young at the same time.

The Praça Marquês de Pombal, seen from the top of the Parque Eduardo VII. The Marquis was one of Pessoa's heroes.

The guide book is very thorough. I’m embarrassed to say it even reveals wonders I knew nothing about, and if I had the time, I’d take a few days going up and down Lisbon’s hills, book in hand, looking for each one of the sights he mentions and see many others I already know with fresh eyes. If Pessoa wanted to convince the tourist that Lisbon was a city capable of rivalling any European capital, I think he made a compelling case. It’d be too boring to list all the sights he recommends, so I’ll just make a few notes: Pessoa calls the Artillery Museum “indubitably the most remarkable one in Lisbon” because of its large collection of guns, cannons, uniforms and armours. It’s an odd one to recommend, but if it has Pessoa’s seal of approval, don’t miss it when you’re in Portugal; thankfully it still exists. Although he doesn’t mention, I also recommend visiting his favourite café, the Martinho da Arcada, which he preferred to the café A Brasileira, nowadays adorned with his bronze statue. Don’t let this fool you. His old haunt is still open and can be found in the Praça do Comércio, an ample square Pessoa may have exaggerated when he called it one of the largest in the world, but beautiful nonetheless. Thanks to Pessoa I now know the English call it the Black Horse Square. 

But as you can see, the horse is not black.

What I think changed mostly since Pessoa’s time was the people, that is, hardly anyone lives in Lisbon anymore. Nowadays it’s more a city for working and shopping than sight-seeing. Most inhabitants have left to the suburbs, making Lisbon a dilapidated ghost town where living is too expensive, and where on weekends you barely find a living soul. Although that could contribute to making sight-seeing better, it also means many of the sights have been left to decay, uncared for. None of this is in Pessoa’s guide book: his was indeed a wondrous, cosy, busy city, where an obscure poet could live, type books from his office’s typing machine, and manuscript poems in small taverns by the river.

The Martinho da Arcada, under the arcades of the Praça do Comércio


  1. It is really that straightforward? I am amazed, genuinely amazed. But why not this persona among all the others? At least one that is clear, non-ironic, and wants to make some honest money by his writing.

    Ah, how I want to visit Lisbon.

    1. Well, if he wanted to make money, he shouldn't have left it unpublished for ten years :)

      One day I have to read, and then write about, the book about Pessoa's many entrepreneurial failures throughout his life. I bet you'll like that one.

  2. And I thought The Book of Disquiet was Pessoa's guidebook to Lisbon. I would love to read this - but I suppose it is not available in English (I will look).

    1. The Book was the other guidebook, the one with aesthetic merit ;)

      But in fact, the guidebook has been published in the USA:

      But I think the bilingual Portuguese edition is better, since it has pictures.