Otherness Watching

The Rua dos Douradores, in the Old City, is so narrow that the four or five storey buildings on either side of the street seem about to meet over your head. They were a mix of apartments, restaurants, offices and businesses, amongst which were several car and bike hire places. Halfway down, outside a church built on a corner, a text is inscribed in the pavement. It’s in Portuguese but I already knew what it said: All humanity may be found here. Or, in another iteration: Yes, for me the Rua dos Douradores contains the meaning of everything and the answer to all riddles, except for the riddle of why riddles exist, which can never be answered. 

There was a sturdy beggar importuning on the steps of the locked church. I didn’t give him anything. On the opposite corner, the windows of a liquor store, its shelves lined with vials of golden ichor, flared in the late sun. I bought a bottle of port there. A man in a blue hat, with one heel built-up, beating a blue tambourine, limped past singing a melancholy tune. Bernardo Soares really did live out the whole of his life here, in the universe that is the Street of the Gilders; the quote in the pavement comes from his single, posthumously published work: in English, The Book of Disquieta factless autobiography.

I carried on, to the Praça do Comércio, more usually called the Terreiro do Paço, after the Ribeira Palace which stood here until it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Like many of the squares of Lisbon, the Terreiro features a huge and outré sculpture at its centre. A bronze José I, the Reformer (1714-1777), riding a bronze horse, crushing snakes beneath its hooves, on a stone plinth flanked by angels and elephants. Palace Square was vast and empty and to walk across it was to feel yourself straying into one of the metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico: a suspension of time in eternity or of space in infinity. You don’t know how, or even if, you will reach the other side.

On that other side the Avenue Ribeira das Naus ran, its name a memory of shipyards where carracks were built, and on the other side of that was a small stone platform from which you could see, standing out in the murky waters of the Tagus, two white pillars inscribed with words I could not decipher—written in Latin I suppose—half submerged, skirts of green weed encircling them where the tide rises and falls. They stand apart from each other, making a gateway, and leading down between them into the river’s depths was a white marble staircase.

The columns of the Cais das Colunas represent the two pillars of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, built and destroyed in antiquity: Boaz and Jachin, names whose meanings are disputed. Wisdom and devotion; strength and endurance. Or something more mystical than either, or both, of those attributions. It resembled the entrance to an underwater world; perhaps to the Portuguese seaborne empire itself, which once girdled half the globe and is now a thing of memories, fragments and ruins.

I couldn’t be bothered making mysteries of things that are not really mysterious; while the real secrets lie unexamined before us. Commerce, for instance. As I walked back across Palace Square a Gypsy, with impeccable manners, asked me where I was from? I told him and asked him the same. Morocco, he said. He offered to sell me some marijuana but I declined. I already knew that what you buy off street dealers might turn out to be mixed herbs; and I didn’t want to smoke anyway. We bowed and parted.

In the Rua Augustus I saw the living statue of a conquistador, painted silver, as if he had been dipped in molten ore; and another of a white Mozart, with a bouquet of red flowers in his hands. At a café on the Praça Rossio, I drank a glass of nameless, delicious red wine. The crowds passing in the street were made up of people from all over the world: Africans, Americans, Arabs; Europeans, Indians, Orientals. A dwarf in a smart jacket and a black top hat walked by; later on that night I saw him again, dishevelled, perhaps pixilated, without his hat.

At that moment I believed in the truth of what Fernando Pessoa (in the person of Bernardo Soares) wrote in Livro do Desassossego: Every day things happen in the world that cannot be explained by any law of things we know. Every day they’re mentioned and forgotten, and the same mystery that brought them takes them away, transforming their secret into oblivion. Such is the law by which things that can’t be explained must be forgotten. The visible world goes on as usual in the broad daylight. Otherness watches us from the shadows.

~ ~ ~

There was a park across the road from the hotel. Next morning I went over and climbed up through pine trees until I could look out over a vast, maze-like zone of green manicured grass, with low, topiary-ed ornaments, cascading down parallel to the Avenue of Liberty towards the Tagus blue in the distance. It was called the Parque da Liberdade until Edward VII of England, in the interest of greater closeness between the two countries, visited in 1902; and the Portuguese renamed it, in his honour, Parque Eduardo VII.

I climbed up further and came across a grand building set on a small hill looking west towards the Atlantic. Yellow and white, with a red tiled roof, ornamented, it resembled a palace from the olden days, now crumbling; resplendent in its neglect and in the habit of mind that could let such a thing fall into ruin. There were ornate statues—Art and Science—either side of the stairs leading up to a doorway surmounted by a false balcony, with stained glass windows above. The peeling painted walls had turned a seductive shade of pale ochre; and there were four large blue and white mosaics, two on either side of the door.

These azulejos—tin-glazed ceramic tilework—followed patriotic themes. One of the ones on the right, with a large plaster sea shell sculpted above, showed a caravel in full sail under the stars of the Southern Cross, heading towards some fabled land. Its companion depicted a part of the action during the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, when the Portuguese army, with its English allies, defeated the Castilians, with their French and Italian allies, and confirmed João I, of the House of Aviz, as King of Portugal.

One of the other two was a rendition of the village of Sagres, in the Algarve, at the southern tip of the land, where Henry the Navigator founded his school of exploration: looking out over stormy seas, planning an empire; the second a representation of the Battle of Ourique, in 1139, between Christians and Moors, during which St James, whose day it was, intervened and granted the Righteous victory over the Infidel. Portuguese history is full of miraculous interventions; and of as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies. These azulejos were elegant but decayed—cracked, flaking and broken, like artefacts of a defunct civilization.

It turned out the building wasn’t even that old. Built in 1922 in Brazil, as the Portuguese Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Great Exhibition of that year, a decade later it was dismantled, brought back to Lisbon and re-erected as part of the Great Portuguese Industrial Exhibition of 1932. In the 1940s it was used for games of roller hockey (played on skates); in the 1980s, it was renamed Carlos Lopes Pavilion, after the long distance runner who won the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. It has since been restored and re-opened as a sports museum, also dedicated to Carlos Lopes.

~ ~ ~

It was strange the way I felt at home in Lisbon, as if something in me rhymed with the city. The grandiosity of the statuary, for instance, has its mirror in the self-deprecation of its makers. Their sense of inferiority has been displaced into something so extravagant as to be absurd; thereby magnifying the inferiority it was supposed to banish. The lost empire dreamed on in the ironic renunciations of the disinherited heirs of those who once conquered half the world. It is a simple step from there to a nostalgia for things that never were. 

You find this oscillation also in Livro do Desassossego; but not only there. The poem, Tobacco Shop, by Álvaro de Campos, a ship’s engineer with Scottish affiliations and Whitmanesque appurtenances, begins: I’m nothing. / I’ll always be nothing. / I can’t even wish to be something. / Yet I have in me all of the dreams of the world. He is idle, looking out his window at the tobacco shop opposite, not knowing what to do. He considers everything—history, philosophy, belief, futility, the cosmos, himself—walking between window and chair, coming to no certain conclusion until he sees a man he knows buying tobacco. As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me. / He waves me a hello, I shout back, Hello Stevens! and the universe / reorganises itself for me, without hopes or ideals / and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.

Without hopes or ideals. Mythic ancestors are another delusion of mine. I was once persuaded, by the way my father looked in his coffin, that he, the son of a black-haired, brown-eyed, dark-skinned Cornish mother and a braw Scots father with a French surname, had Iberian blood. Cornish folk, like the Irish and the Welsh, took in sailors stranded after the sinking of the ships of the Spanish Armada; their genes entered family lines. Some were Moroccan. More anciently, a sea-faring people, related to the Phoenicians, colonised the Atlantic coast from North Africa as far as the Outer Hebrides. The Basques too, said to be older than any other Homo sapiens in Europe, left genetic traces among the Britons.

Romantic speculations may deliver themselves intact into a beloved quotidian; ordinariness activated by magnificent dreams nevertheless remains resolutely ordinary. I want both the dreams and the reality; I don’t want to give one away for the other and I don’t see why anyone else should have to do so either. I loved the shabby facades upon the buildings of the Avenue of Liberty, for instance, their pale yellow, pink and green panels peeling, their windows outlined in white. The way Lisboetas seemed able to keep both grandeur and ruin simultaneously in mind. I wondered where the dwarf’s top hat might be.

~ ~ ~

On the other side of the Jardim da Estrela, past the English cemetery, with its sternly visaged statue of the Duke of Wellington, a wren accompanied me, chirping softly, picking tiny insects from the moss that grew between the stones on the footpath. The rain began again as I turned into Rua Coelho da Rocha, the Street of the Rock Rabbit, where Casa Fernando Pessoa stands at number 16. The family—Fernando, his mother, his half-sister, two half-brothers, a servant—took the house with some money bequeathed them after the death of Fernando’s step-father, his mother’s second husband, in Pretoria in 1919.

João Miguel dos Santos Rosa, a ship’s captain and naval officer, served for many years as Portuguese Consul in South Africa. Fernando (b. 1888) lived there between the ages of 7 and 17; after which he returned to Lisbon. When João died his dependents returned to Portugal, moving into this house, where Fernando joined them; he lived there for the rest of his life. It is a plain, greyish-white, three storey building with a red tiled roof, one of several in a row, which has been made over into a museum, eliminating all traces of what it would have been like as a family home.

Well, not quite all. Upstairs is a re-creation of Fernando’s bedroom, including what may have been the actual furniture: a wardrobe like an upright coffin, a single bed, with a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches on the bedside table. The famous chest of drawers, where he recorded the inaugural visitations of his three poetic heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, stands against the south wall. It wasn’t as tall as I thought it would be; but then, how tall was he? Taller than yesterday, and thinner too.

He said he had been trying to invent a poet. The day I finally gave upit was March 8, 1914—I went over to a high desk and, taking a piece of paper, began to write, standing up, as I always do when I can. And I wrote some thirty poems, one after another, in a kind of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define. It was the triumphant day of my life and never will I have another like it. Forgive me the absurdity of the sentence: in me there appeared my master. He means Alberto Caiero, mystic, innocent, author of The Keeper of Sheep, the first of the three to manifest.

Elsewhere in the building, behind glass cases, were astrological charts of the heteronyms, all of whom have birthdays, biographies and (with one exception) death-days of their own. Pessoa’s own chart is set in stone at the threshold; you step over it upon entering the house. I had not realised how intricate his conceptions were: each poet represents a different element, so that between them they cover the bases: Fire (Caeiro), Air (de Campos), Earth (Reis), Water (Pessoa-as-himself).

There were relics: a small portable typewriter, painted matt black; a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles; a pocket-sized missal. School reports from Durban, where Pessoa received an English education. A picture of his birth father, a dashing fellow wearing a cravat, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department while moonlighting as the music critic for a Lisbon newspaper. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa died young, of tuberculosis, in 1893. Fernando’s younger brother, Jorge, his only full sibling, died a year later of the same disease. After that he and his mother—Maria Madalena Pinheiro Nogueira, from the Azores and, like Joaquim, musical and multi-lingual—went to Durban to join the Consul there.

Pessoa never married. There was just one woman, Ofélia Quierós, who unites in her name Shakespeare’s doomed heroine and Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, the Portuguese explorer of the Pacific. There were relics of her too, gifts from Fernando—a delicate silver bracelet; a tiny casket in which you might keep a ring; notes and letters, including one that said, provocatively: Kiss me! Their relationship, never consummated, began in 1920 and quickly reached a point of such intensity that Pessoa, under pressure when his family returned from South Africa, called it off: by means of a jealous Álvaro de Campos, who, although imaginary, claimed he was the unhappy third in a ménage à trois

Ofélia Quierós nephew was also a poet and through him she and Fernando resumed contact a decade later for another intense though rather shorter period, which also came to an end through the interventions of the heteronyms. Fernando and Ophelia, no longer courting, remained in touch until his death in 1935. She still felt tenderly towards him; but he was clearly unavailable. There are letters—forty-eight of his, a hundred of hers—and they have been published; they do not so much illuminate as intensify the mystery. She married a man called Soares.

I could have spent all day at the Casa Fernando Pessoa; there was so much to see. On the top floor, a digitized library of the poet’s books, and some real ones too, including a 1903 English edition of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus; photographs; films you could watch through peep-holes in the wall. Pessoa’s Shakespeare, open at the first page of The Tempest and heavily annotated in a minuscule hand. I focussed on some underlined text:

Act One, Scene One; a storm is raging. When the King, Alonso, and his retinue enter, the Boatswain tells them to go below again, so that the mariners may continue undistracted their work of saving the ship.

‘Nay, good, be patient,’ says Gonzales, the King’s counsellor.

‘When the sea is,’ replies the Boatswain.

It was Saturday at the Casa and auditions were in progress in a large room off the landing on the floor below. Well-dressed families, mothers and fathers, with their sons and daughters, but mostly daughters, kept arriving. Shedding their expensive overcoats and shaking out their wet umbrellas. Perhaps a hundred people gathered, settled, quietened; then, one by one, the children stood up to sing. To piano accompaniment. Their pure high singing, ascending the stairs, sounded like the voices of angels.

When I went to leave, I saw a pale-faced, dark-haired girl of about eleven years standing alone on the low stage, wearing a Prussian blue dress with collar and sleeves edged in white lace, singing the old English folk song: Are you going to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Remember me to one who lives there / He once was a true love of mine. Later there’s mention of a cambric shirt sewn, miraculously, without a seam. Love imposes impossible tasks, the song goes on to say. Sometimes it accomplishes them too.

~ ~ ~

Walking away from the Casa, I passed the arches of an aqueduct and saw a sign advertising a Museum of Water: what might the exhibits have been? Rain drops? There were plenty of those, falling from the sky. Further along, in the Rua da Escola Politécnica, I came by chance upon the Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciênca. A grey neo-classic building with a grand staircase leading up to a grand entrance; which was locked. At a small round gatehouse down the side, however, you could buy a ticket granting access both to the Museum and to the adjoining Botanical Gardens.

Another rain shower was ending as I walked down into the dripping gardens. Beneath a flowering Datura tree, two French girls were laughing their way through a herbal maze. I caught a whiff of the perfume of those intoxicating ochre trumpets. There were avenues of tall palms, their trunks green with mosses and lichens. Morton Bay figs, as big as any you might find in an Australian park, stood with their aerial roots dangling like fibrous, disembodied lungs in the wet air. There seemed to be an infinite variety of cycads. Araucaria too, from Chile perhaps, where the Monkey Puzzle tree grows.

Halfway down the slope, beneath a bank of greenery, a Rasta sat on a bench, a small umbrella somehow fixed inside his clothes and open above his head, a hoodie half covering his dreads, wearing rainbow-coloured sunglasses and smoking a spliff. He raised his shades so that our eyes could meet; smiled; then let them fall again. A blue-winged bird investigated the ground beneath some trees then flew abruptly away. It had a glossy black head, a white throat, and underparts the colour of the Jimson Weed flowers: the azure-winged magpie, aka the Iberian magpie—not a pica, a cousin of the crow.

The museum was deserted: apart from the young woman who took my ticket—beautiful, smiling, with both her legs in callipers. My footsteps echoed through galleries of crystals and bones: amethyst, outcroppings of rose quartz, onyx cores; dinosaur femurs or vertebrae which had turned over time to opal or to agate. The central corridor, with a marble floor, was lined with glass cases stretching up to the ceiling and containing nothing at all; until, at the far end, there was one with two antique microscopes inside.

Here was preserved, intact, a nineteenth century chemical laboratory and attendant circular lecture hall, with tiered seating. Large glass jars of yellow and green and blue and white powders stood along high wooden shelves. There was the smell of ether and of gas; of tungsten. An adjoining gallery was given over to the scholarly remains of Francisco de Arruda Furtado, a Portuguese disciple of Charles Darwin. He was a native of the Azores, self-taught, prodigiously energetic; the exhibition gathered together items he had collected, discovered or manufactured in his brief scientific career.

Furtado’s correspondence with Darwin was cut short by the older man’s death in 1882. Francisco had been supplying him with information about the adaptations of creatures endemic to the Azores. A malacologist by profession, he was employed in 1885 at the Museum, for two years, during which time he classified its collection of mollusc and sea shells. After that was done, he returned to his birthplace at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, where he died, aged 33, in 1887. I don’t know the cause of death. Exhaustion, perhaps.

Furtado was also an anthropologist; there were grotesqueries: a glass case full of casts of diseased or mutilated human genitalia, male and female, made out of some brownish substance resembling the bakelite of old-fashioned hearing aids. Feathered, shrunken heads, their thin lips drawn back over long yellow teeth, collected from indigenous burials in the Azores, uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived but showing signs of more ancient occupation; cases of surgical instruments whose uses I could only guess. Furtado was an artist too: amongst the fish upside down in bottles, and the mutant human jaw bones, was a beautiful, delicate, detailed drawing, in colour, of a passion fruit flower.

The museum was not just deserted, and scarce of exhibits; few of the displays were labelled, so you made your way from enigma to enigma. At one point I found myself on the inside of the locked doors that led to the street; and, climbing a set of stairs to the side of the lobby, walked into an architectural version of one of those impossible constructions drawn by M C Escher: a door which led onto three other doors, each of which opened upon a blank wall. Retracing my steps I heard, like an hallucination, the sound of children’s voices; and went to see if I could find out where they were coming from.

At the back of the museum a man dressed in a sky blue robe and a soft black Renaissance hat, staff in hand, came out of a room full of children and introduced himself: I am Galileo Galilei, he said, not portentously. He was instructing the children in the operation of the heliocentric solar system; and doing so in the person and the costume of the Italian astronomer. Kids of all ages flooded out of the lecture room and swirled like planets and moons and asteroids around him. I shook his hand. Eppur si muove, I said; and Galileo bowed.

From the back of the building you could see, through high windows, avenues of cypress trees disposed along narrow, sodden lawns. I left the wide, light-filled room via an entrance symmetrically disposed with respect to the one I had come in by, thinking I could return to the front that way. Instead, I met a locked door; and to the left of that, a stairwell. I climbed one, two, three flights and came out on top of a tower set upon the roof; from which, looking west, you could see ranks of buildings receding all the way to Sintra, their white-painted walls and red roofs luminous under the rainy sky.

On the way back down I found an open door and stepped through into a shadowy room. It was only half-dark, there was a light source, perhaps a window, beyond; but I didn’t go any further. In the centre of the room, on a rectangular table, in a cut glass vase, stood some arum lilies, carefully arranged—and decomposing. The blacks of decay spreading like melanomas across the white flesh of the flowers, their golden tongues greying, drooping; green leaves curled and withered. Spirogyra swarmed in the water where the stems festered. I could smell them: yes, worse than weeds. It was as uncanny a sight as I have seen.

~ ~ ~

Lisbon was like that: replete with wonders that were always about to disclose some absurd or macabre subtext. A half-fictional city half as old as time. I understood why some people think it was named after the wanderer, Odysseus. Or, as the Romans had it, Ulysses, giving us, allegedly, Olisipo. Other etymologies are just as persuasive: the Phoenician Alis-Ubo, safe harbour; an Iberian word for the Tagus, Lisso or Lucio. Who knows? I went on down towards the Chiado, thinking to return to the Cais das Colunas, where Queens and Kings, and perhaps Odysseus too, had come ashore.

Not far past the Praça Luís de Camões, in a second hand bookshop, an immensely dignified man, surrounded by acolytes, sat in a green velvet armchair just inside the door; as I came in, he rose, bowed and took his leave. It was as if he had been waiting for me. On the shelves was a handsome, six volume edition, leather-bound, in Portuguese, of the Peregrinação, the Pilgrimage of Fernäo Mendes Pinto (1509-1583); an autobiographical narrative of his travels in the East in the sixteenth century: to Ethiopia, the Red Sea, India; Malacca and Sumatra; China and Japan; Siam and Pegu, as Thailand and Burma were in those days called.

The Peregrinação was published posthumously in 1614; this was an early, perhaps a first edition. I had already read, in a library in Auckland, an English translation—The Travels of Mendes Pinto, published in 1989 by the University of Chicago Press—and developed an affection for the roguish adventurer, a kind of Munchausen, though most of his adventures probably had some basis in fact. Mendes Pinto, one scholar wrote, may have been a sensitive eyewitness, or a great liar, or a brilliant satirist; he was certainly more than a simple storyteller. But what story teller is not also a witness, a satirist and a liar?

I wanted to buy something but, in amongst the maps and globes, the dusty old paintings, the unreadable books, did not know what might it be. In the English language section were works by Ian Fleming and Carson McCullers. An art book, devoted to the work of Max Beckmann, contained a reproduction of his Odysseus and Calypso, in which an ocelot, a green bird and a coiled snake, look upon the ship-wrecked sailor and the nymph as they recline together ahead of his departure for Ithaca. I’d already bought a copy of Os Lugares de Pessoa, The Places of Pessoa, annotated photographs, at the Casa; that would have to do.

I was tired now; and, perhaps fortuitously, my last attempt at literary tourism, a visit to the José Saramago Museum on the Rua dos Bacalhoeiros (the Street of the Cod Fish Boats) to the east of the Old City, failed. Although the museum stayed open until six, they would not allow entry after 5.30 pm. I wandered along the riverbank for a while, remembering the first Saramago I read: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984), in which, following the demise of his creator, Reis, Pessoa’s sole undead heteronym, a doctor, a poet (Horatian odes) and a Royalist, self-exiled in Brazil since 1919, returns to Lisbon.

Slowly he comes to understand that, with his author gone, he too must fade away. As Fascism continues to rise across Europe—the implacable tightening of António de Oliveira Salazar’s grip on power in Portugal, the genesis of civil war in Spain, the Italian adventure in Abyssinia, Nazi Germany an evil dark cloud in the east—in the newspapers Reis compulsively reads, the ink begins to leach from the pages, leaving them blank, bereft of words. It is an incommensurable book; and now I remembered something anomalous about it, something I had never really considered before. 

Reis has in his luggage The God of the Labyrinth (1933) by Herbert Quain: not an actual book, an invention of the Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges, who published, in The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), an essay called An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain. Quain was an apocryphal Irish writer, recently (1940) deceased (in Roscommon). The God of the Labyrinth, his first novel, is a detective story in which the solution to the mystery as given in the book, Borges says, is false; but a discerning reader may still find out the truth of the matter.

The joke in Saramago’s novel is that, despite his best efforts, Ricardo Reis cannot finish Quain’s book; and is therefore unable to assert his qualifications, if that is the word, as a reader. He is a fiction of a fiction, lost in a fiction, with only fictions to guide him. Saramago (or his narrator) remarks: In my honest opinion, the reader of a mystery is the only real survivor of the story he is reading, unless it is as the one real survivor that every reader reads every story.

After dinner in a meat restaurant I took the Azul line to Marquis de Pombal and when I came out of the station into the rainy night, a blind woman asked me for directions. She took my arm and we walked together along to the bus stop. The Dutch clog on the sill of the building opposite my hotel window was overflowing with rain water. I poured a glass of the port, ran a hot bath and lay in it, looking at the tile work on the wall above the tub. Small blue and white azulejos, showing ships and animals, birds and flowers; abstract patterns inscribed upon a Moorish floor: the answer to all riddles, except for the riddle of why riddles exist, which can never be answered. 

image : Alister Crowley and Fernando Pessoa playing chess in Lisbon c. 1930

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