Hunting for Words
A literary pilgrimage in Lisbon
I’d forgotten how shabby Lisbon is, but as I walked from Santa Apolónia station to the apartment I had rented for the next four nights, it was my first realization on arriving back in Portugal’s capital. Three years ago I spent five days here, walking the very same street I took from the station to the heart of the city, and in the three intervening years I saw that my mind’s eye had held onto only the most beautiful aspects of the city: the old buildings, the tiles, the bright colors and sidewalk cafés. The other realization I had as I walked the cobblestoned streets, was I had no idea what I was doing on this trip. Why was I coming to Lisbon? What was I going to do with my time? Visit tourist traps? Go to the beach? Eat chocolate and cry?
Over the course of the first day and night, my uncertainty became resolution of the most organic and magical sort. My first stop after checking into my rental (a disastrous choice that deserves a post of its own), was Livraria Ferin, a book store in the Baixa neighborhood, where among the stacks and floor to ceiling bookcases I picked up two volumes of poetry in Portuguese and Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey, also translated into this language I am stumbling through. After a confused visit to Castelo São Jorge, where I wandered the ancient ramparts of what remains of the castle trying to jumpstart this journey and find some direction, I found myself sitting in Largo José Saramago, near the river, eating roasted mushrooms and flipping through the books I’d bought and the one I’d been reading on the train on the way down. I had brought Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, translated into English - a book compiled of the many fragments and snippets of existential rumination written by Pessoa over a twenty period, and compiled after his death in 1937. I was debating if I would ever be able to finish a book made up entirely of mental musings while flipping through the anthology of Pessoa’s poetry that I picked up in Ferin, as well as a volume of Alice Vieira’s poetry. Sitting in the plaza, it occurred to me I had walked past the José Saramago museum every day, multiple times a day in 2018, but had not known who Saramago was, nor anything about Pessoa other than his name. Nibbling my mushrooms, adoring my books, scribbling in my notebooks, I decided I would visit the Fundação José Saramago and the Casa Fernando Pessoa the next day.
Over the next four days, in the museums of these two writers, in the streets where they lived, worked and set their work, I followed the small accumulation of signs. Finding myself in a street where Book of Disquiet is set because some gifted me a Segway tour, whose office just happened to be in Rua dos Douradores; looking up to see, unexpected, a plaque emblazoned Antiga Casa Pessoa, where his favorite restaurant had once been; sitting in Largo do Carmo, where I had been before to visit the ruins of Convento do Carmo, but discovering a second museum dedicated to Pessoa because he had lived and worked in this square - the place where he first began writing down the thousands of fragments and thoughts that would become Disquiet; having my last cup of coffee before leaving next to the Saramago museum, having learned on my Segway tour that the writer’s ashes are interred under the olive tree planted here. As my first full day led me from my rental, across the city to the Campo Ourique neighborhood, and back across to Largo José Saramago, I realized I was in fact on a literary pilgrimage, and that following these signs, following these writers, and spending my time sitting in cafés, reading, writing, thinking about books and literature and words was not only my favorite to thing to do with my time, it was also a worthwhile way to spend five days in such a vital and fascinating city.
The last two novels I read (in Portuguese) were Saramago’s Blindness and Balthasar and Blimunda. The last book I had started in English was The Book of Disquiet, and without having premeditated such an experience for myself, carrying their words around with me as I stumbled on the places where they were born or worked or loved or died, as I sat on shaded park benches or restaurant patios, my appreciation for each of these prolific writers, and the difficulty and diversity of their work, and the difficulty and diversity of life’s experiences seemed the most important thing I could be doing. Pessoa’s poetry is far more ordered than his prose, though equally dedicated to meditations on meaning. Saramago’s prose is famous for its three page paragraphs, and lack of punctuation other than periods and commas. Both writers delve into experiment, embodying literary modernism in ways that are both inspiring and exasperating. On the train headed home, as I closed my book to get ready for my approaching stop, I looked across the aisle and on the lap of the man across from me was, O memorial do convento (Balthasar and Blimunda), a final sign — creating of those five days a perfect ring, a perfect circle, bounded by Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago and the glorious, satisfying, mystery of life. An ending to a short story so perfect it was surely guided by the spirits who’d been keeping me company, reminding how valuable and precious creativity and curiosity are to living an examined life.