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Literary Lisbon

“Sometimes I think I will never leave Rua dos Douradores.  Once written down, that seems to me like an eternity.”  So begins my particular edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and the cerebral meanderings of its protagonist and diarist, Bernardo Soares.  It’s at once an article of faith – an expression of love for the city where he lives; but in another sense it emphasises resignation, and a realisation that his life won’t ever change.

The Lisbon of 70 years ago may well have been suited to Soares’s inertia.  Rather than tackle the challenges he faces head on, he turns within himself, to examine his thoughts and feelings.  Confined to his office and job in accounts and a finite world beyond – his regular eating places and rented room – one is left wondering whether he is capable of breaking with all that is familiar.  Instead he opts for security and concentrates his non-working hours on self-exploration.  And in some odd way, he finds happiness.

But what Soares and Pessoa would make of modern day Lisbon would be another matter though.  The closeted environs of Baixa neighbourhood appear to have changed beyond recognition.  Whereas before Rua dos Douradores held Soares’s squalid office, a half-known grocer on the corner and an old tavern populated by the same people day after day, today’s Rua dos Douradores has been transformed.  Yesterday’s commercial district has become today’s pleasure centre, with upmarket, 4-star hotels and restaurants running its course, the more gaudy Indian and Chinese ones seeking to set themselves apart from their competitors through the use of neon-lighting above their doors.  By contrast a few other, more traditional alternatives line the street, offering Portuguese fare, their blue tiled azulejos decorating their exterior.

Amid this homage to the tourist and consumer can be seen traces of residential life.  The neo-classical buildings which sweep the length of the Baixa’s parallel streets – a reminder of the urban planning achieved by Portugal’s then first minister, the Marquis de Pombal, in the wake of the 1755 earthquake – maintain a link with Soares and the past.  But there’s a difference: here and there television antennae sprout from the room tops and the lower level windows, a reminder of one of the unsaid essentials of modern day life.  Reassuring, a few middle-aged women walk past, squat and dumpy, dressed in dark colours.  Another, unspoken link with an earlier Lisbon seems maintained.

Pessoa’s Soares write that he is “conscious of the sky today, though there are days when, though I feel it, I don’t see it, living as I do in the city…”  Walking through the streets of the Baixa it is possible to understand that sentiment.  Though none of the buildings in the area are over four stories, the street and surrounding area is an orgy of contrast, the streets divided down the middle between light and dark, illumination and shadow; a reflection, perhaps of the inner struggle in Soares.

Yet only a few streets away to the west, on the cobbled street staircase that is the Calçada de Duque, it is possible to capture the Lisbon sky in all its glory.  About halfway up the street several restaurants have established themselves, to take advantage of the view which is on offer.  Each has placed several outdoor dining tables to entice customers, but mid-April is that most inconsistent time: warm in the sunlight, but too chilly and breezy in its shadow.

With legs heavy and chest wheezing after the climb, one looks back at the route to the Baixa below.  The late evening sunlight works its magic on the city, the sun’s last-gasp rays drenching the white-washed buildings red; the roof tiles, a pale orange colour during the day, take on a bolder tone, akin to encrusted blood.  Suddenly the insipidness of Soares and his self-centred whimsies associated with the dimness which permeates his workplace and home-life is gone; here is Lisbon in its most passionate and animated form.

As if to emphasise that change, the competition between the restaurants’ proprietors take on a more cut-throat air.  They stand by the entrance, eyeing the tourists as they work their way unsteadily up and down the staircase, waking for any weakness to pounce.  Slight glances at the establishment, a fleeting look at the menu and at once they pounce out of their trap and in for the kill – or at least the hard sell.  “You speak English?  You are hungry?  Come eat here.  It’s extremely good.”  As the tourists pass by, smiling vacantly as they go, another proprietor leaps out of his stall, trying another tack.  “I like Americans!  Come and eat.”  Struggling to reconcile the apparent peace and beauty of the Lisbon scene below with the demands of the tourist dollar around, it’s at time likes these that one can almost sympathise with Soares, his self-absorption and his refusal/resignation ever to leave his Rua dos Douradores.

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