Lisbon: Beyond What the Tourist Should See

November 27, 2017   •   By Casey Walker

Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See

Fernando Pessoa

City of Ulysses

Teolinda Gersão


THE BOOK, like nearly everything else Fernando Pessoa ever wrote, was never a book. Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See is a bundle of typewritten pages, found long after the poet’s death in one of the two vast wooden trunks in which Pessoa deposited reams of prose, poems, scribblings, notes, letters, political tracts, and speculations on the occult. Thirty thousand items, few of them published in his lifetime. The book is a tourist’s guide to Lisbon, written in English, by perhaps the most obscure-famous writer that this largely unknown city has yet produced — a man who seldom left his hometown between 1905, when his family returned from his father’s military posting in South Africa, and his death in 1935.



Various editions of Pessoa’s guidebook can now be found in any bookstore in central Lisbon. Nearly a hundred years after it was written, it remains a serviceable account of the city’s canonical tourist sites — the Elevador de Santa Justa, the Terreiro do Paço, the Alcântara miradouro, the Castelo de São Jorge, the Torre de Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery. Pessoa tells you that the statue of Dom Pedro IV, which stands in Rossio Square, is over 27 meters high. He tells you that the central railway station is in the Manueline style, that the Avenida da Liberdade, “the finest artery in Lisbon,” opened in 1882 and is 1,500 meters wide. He spares a few words for slightly less visited destinations, like the Casa dos Bicos (today home of the José Saramago Foundation), and mentions a gorgeous, ancient cedar tree in the middle of a square in Príncipe Real, whose branches have grown so vast and heavy they rest on a canopy of iron bars. The tree is still there. In the end, the only real surprise in Pessoa’s guidebook is that Pessoa is the one who wrote it.



Pessoa’s work is characterized by its multivalent voices, the so-called “heteronyms” under which he wrote — Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Bernardo Soares, and dozens of others. The poet was an exacting curator of the multitudes within him, imbuing each heteronym with a distinct life, history, literary style, philosophical convictions, and political attachments. And yet, in writing about Lisbon, Pessoa reveals little of the shape-shifting imagination that marks his poetry. We barely glimpse the man who spent his life as a kind of dual resident of both Lisbon and his own refractory city of dreams.

I’m certain that a person of Pessoa’s prismatic observational faculties knew Lisbon in more searching, idiosyncratic, and unrespectable ways than this guidebook suggests. Surely Pessoa knew where to get the stiffest drink or hear the greatest fado, knew where to consult the most reliable expert on the occult and which buildings housed the political clubs bristling with argument over the burgeoning regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, a man who would go on to strangle Portugal for the better part of the 20th century. Pessoa doesn’t ever seem to have had much interest, sexually, in women — or in men — but in all his time lingering in coffee houses and restaurants, in long and solitary walks around the city, he must have learned the places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance. “They weep here / For how the world goes,” Virgil writes in The Aeneid — and “here,” in that sentence, really does mean a specific place in Carthage where the grieving exiles go to mourn. What I want to know is: Where in Pessoa’s Lisbon did people go when they needed to weep for how the world goes? Or where did they go to profess their lasting love? I want to go to these places, too. Perhaps Pessoa considered this knowledge too confidential to consign it even to his manuscript trunk.



But another possibility occurs to me: Pessoa didn’t believe tourists are really searching for such things. His guidebook doesn’t offer up any deep insight into the place he loves, because anything beyond a point-by-point itinerary through Lisbon, cheerfully summoning up the glories of Portugal’s past, would vastly exceed the tourist’s gaze. The tourist arrives to observe monuments to glory, not interrogate the very notion of glory. The privilege of the tourist is not to have to ask such questions. To limit your inquiry to what “the tourist” should see is another way of saying: let me offer you nothing that might upset you.



In Teolinda Gersão’s novel of Lisbon, City of Ulysses, translated by Jethro Soutar and Annie McDermott, the figure of Fernando Pessoa appears early on. We see the poet, in “his quiet disquiet,” seated at a cafe table with “his coffee cup, his cigarette, his glass of brandy, the monotony of his days, the melancholy of the streets he walked in Baixa.”

Gersão’s narrator, an artist named Paolo Vaz, has been commissioned to create a new work about Lisbon for a contemporary art museum. As Paolo considers his project, he inflates the image of Pessoa to the full dimensions of the city:

Pessoa was practically nothing in life, but his trunk full of dreams — of unfinished, unpublished papers — helps us fill the void, or make up for our own lack of dreams. We share his addiction to getting drunk on what might have been but never was, what never took shape beyond an initial sketch, what is forever unfinished — for then it might have become anything, anything in the whole world. Pessoa’s is a bottomless trunk because our melancholy leads us inside it and we never find our way out.

For most of Gersão’s novel, Paolo directly addresses himself to his lost love, an artist named Cecilia. But I sense that the “we” Paolo uses here is much bigger than Paolo and Cecilia. When Paulo says “our melancholy,” it is as though he is speaking of the Portuguese national pastime. And he may well be. There is a palpable longing embedded in Lisbon — every writer comments on it. It’s a city that brandishes its own forgottenness like a flag, drifting forever at the far end of the European continent, out beyond the Pillars of Hercules, once the fabled edge of the Western world.

I’m wary, in all cases, of the sport of national typologies, but this is part of my own family I’m speaking of, the Portuguese. And I think it’s fair to inquire into the stories nations like to tell about themselves — that’s part of what a nation is, after all, a communal story. What a vision of the free individual is to the American mythology, a sense of bygone days and atmospheric mourning are to the myth of the Portuguese — “this country of melancholiacs,” as Paolo says.



Gersão’s book could be alternately titled: Lisbon: What the Tourist Does Not See. She does not shy from the seedy, disquieting corruption that rules over the city. Her Lisbon is literally falling down:

In Lisbon, buildings collapsed like sandcastles. One of them, with six families inside, on Costa de Castelo, because when the neighboring building had been demolished eighteen years earlier, no one had bothered to reinforce the supporting walls. A five-story building in Luis Bivar followed, then another in Prada do Chile […] There was an outbreak of diphtheria in Bairro do Religion. Tuberculosis still hadn’t disappeared, and neither had child labor […] A building collapsed in Lisbon on Rua da Guia and another on Rua do Capelao, the latter having survived the earthquake but not city years of neglect.

As it happens, I stayed on the Costa do Castelo the last time I was in the city, across the street from a dangerously active construction site. My apartment building didn’t collapse, but I was certainly party to a more insidious, creeping kind of ruination — the recent hollowing out of the city’s housing stock by apartments cordoned off for temporary tourist rentals. I remember carrying my heavy suitcase up four flights of stairs, and a neighbor opening his door to tell me, gruffly, not to scuff the walls. I was being careful, having seen signs with the same admonishment — in three languages, in red letters — posted at every single landing. But I saw what I was to him: just one more transient disturbing the peace, offering nothing back to his city except dirt marks on his walls.



City of Ulysses makes its own distinction between tourists and travelers — between people presumably embarked on a meaningful search for a place, and people who just want to take a photo next to the carriage some king once rode in:

Tourists go to new places as a way of escaping from themselves, from routine, stress, unhappiness, boredom, old age, death. They glance at the places they visit but never fully get to know them and quickly swap them for other places, trying to escape ever further away. Travelers, however, go in search of themselves in new places. And they get to know these places deeply: their desire to discover themselves is such that no effort is too great and no step too far.

The title of Gersão’s novel derives from an old story about the founding of Lisbon, a story about that waylaid wanderer par excellence, Ulysses. (Ulysses, I wonder: tourist or traveler?) The legend of Ulysses founding Lisbon goes back more than 2,000 years, Gersão writes: “Ulysses gave Lisbon his name, Ulyssesum, which then became Olisipo. This gave Lisbon a singular status: a real city founded by a fictional character, a city contaminated by literature and storytelling.”

“Contaminated” feels like the right word in that sentence, especially as it relates to the melancholy infectiousness of Lisbon’s story about itself, and Paolo’s melancholy story within that story. Paolo spends much of the novel in a state of heartbreak, slowly unfurling the tale of his four-year relationship with Cecilia, and confessing to his culpability in the demise of their love. What Paolo wants, like Ulysses, is to travel back to Cecilia — but, in his case, Cecilia is no Penelope, and he is adrift in time, not in space. He can visit their past love, but only as a tourist. What he has, instead, is the melancholy of Lisbon.



Melancholy implies a sense of belatedness, of bygone days, and it’s part of the lore of Lisbon that it was once the glittering capital of a grand seafaring empire, a city of riches slowly squandered.

This iconography of grandeur followed by loss is neatly inscribed in Portuguese literature by two of its most famous writers, Luís de Camões and Pessoa — Portugal’s Shakespeare and Proust, respectively. Camões is the poet of the seafaring age, the height of Portuguese monarchical fortunes, when its trading posts extended around Africa and into India and China. Pessoa, writing 400 years later, is the poet of retrenchment, failure, interiority, and haunted dreams. Camões sailed to Goa and Macau, lost an eye in battle, was shipwrecked in the Mekong Delta. Pessoa said of travel: “there’s nothing in it of me / Besides my dream of the journey. / The rest is just land and sky.” Together, they are the face that Portugal sees in the mirror: the drink and the hangover; love and its loss; glory and ruin.

But Gersão is clear-eyed about this fabled “golden age.” There is no easy sentiment in her novel, no romantic saudade about the loss of what was, after all, a colonial project. “The age of abundance, during which gold poured into Lisbon, lasted just sixty years,” she writes, “from the mid-fifteenth to the early sixteenth century. At the time, it seemed the ships would bring a never-ending supply of treasure: slaves, gold, spices, fabrics. The city flourished, filling with luxury and extravagance and becoming cosmopolitan.”

That’s it: 60 years. A single human lifetime. There’s your so-called “golden age.” And who was it “golden” for? Certainly not for the slaves. Nor for far-flung people stripped of their wealth. It was not even golden for most of the people of Portugal. By the middle of the 16th century, in Lisbon, there was famine. Grain had to be bought in Flanders, at extortionate prices. In the age of gold, Gersão writes, “there wasn’t enough bread to go around.”



Crassus, one of the richest men in ancient Rome, is said to have acquired his vast fortune by buying houses that were on fire. Plutarch relates that many Romans, seeing their houses aflame, were inclined to sell to Crassus on the spot “at a trifling price.” Using an army of 500 slaves, acquired for their skill in architecture and building, Crassus would restore these burned-out houses bought for a pittance. By this method, according to Plutarch, Crassus acquired “the largest part of Rome.” Men like Crassus are who I think about every time I hear about a so-called “golden age.” And you can find them in the substrate of any beautiful city: Rome, Venice, Paris, Lisbon. There is no document of civilization, Walter Benjamin wrote, that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.



When, at the end of Gersão’s novel, Paolo finally creates his work on Lisbon, it’s a fugitive and fragmentary one:

I decided to do something else, something different: blurred images of Lisbon, in which the city could be guessed at more than it could be seen. Because Lisbon wasn’t put under the spotlight, or paid any attention by the rest of the world, people’s image of the place was slightly out of focus. I’d therefore offer an oblique vision […] Lisbon emerged as a desirable city, a city you had to find for yourself.

By the end of the novel, Lisbon is still the “City of Ulysses,” but I think not so much of Homer’s Ulysses as the one we meet in the poem by Tennyson: “[T]hough we are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.”



In Pessoa’s guide, he takes the tourist up the road that passes the Sé Cathedral, near what was once “the palace of the archbishop Dom Miguel de Castro” and had become, by Pessoa’s time, “the female gaol called Aljube.” Of the Aljube, Pessoa says: “It has no claim on our attention, except that of the historic past of the building itself.” And here is another moment in which I am filled with curiosity about how much is left unsaid. How many women did the Aljube house? For how long? What crimes had they committed? Surely this would be as interesting to know as how many seats are in the Campo Pequeno bullring (8,500, Pessoa tells us).

Pessoa died in the early years of the Salazar dictatorship, but the Aljube would go on to become a central holding place for the Estado Novo’s political prisoners. Today, the Aljube is a museum to the resistance, with bracing exhibits about state surveillance, psychological and physical torture, secret police, and the system of incentives and threats that turned ordinary Portuguese into informers during decades of repression. The tourist can walk inside the tiny cells, barely wider than a human body, in which opponents of the regime were held, close the door, and stand in utter darkness.

On the top floor of the Aljube, there’s a narrow balcony that runs all the way around the building. After seeing the cells and reading the accounts of the security apparatus, of the terrors of repression and surveillance, I stepped outside with a friend. We were trying to catch our collective breath again. The yellow trolleys went ringing up the road, and the Sé Cathedral loomed as it must have for those prisoners on the rare moments they were led to and from their cells. The Tejo River was before us, as were the hills of Lisbon, and it was a warm summer afternoon, with people drinking wine at sidewalk tables. We stood above them in an archbishop’s palace turned women’s jail turned political prison turned museum to what it costs to resist tyranny. I didn’t think it then, but I think now that to talk about “what the tourist should see” is to leave out all of the mysterious ways in which you sometimes find a city seeing you, extracting something from you, giving you something to take with you, but also forcing you to leave something behind. What I mean by that last phrase is that I’m convinced that in some spiritual or memorial sense, there is an ongoing moment in which I am always somehow standing at the Aljube. It’s a moment I use as I continue to make myself into whatever I am. To be so disquieted by the deep history of a city, by everything still extant in its stones, feels like the very opposite of tourism. It feels like becoming. It feels like learning to live.


Casey Walker is the author of the novel Last Days in Shanghai.