Disquiet in Lisbon

In two weeks I’ll be returning to Lisbon, for my second year participating in the Disquiet International literary conference. Besides giving a reading from my fiction and nonfiction, I’ll also be leading the conference’s Fernando Pessoa walk though the streets of the city’s Baixa neighborhood to follow the haunts of the great 20th century Portuguese poet. And I’ll be teaching a generative travel writing class, encouraging my students to explore the nooks and crannies of Lisbon (and there are a lot of them).

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There’s a stellar cast of writers in the program, including the Portuguese-American writers Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar, as well as writers Terri Witek, Tayari Jones, Adam Levin, Sam Lipsyte, Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, screenwriter and actor John Frey, and some of the best Portuguese writers of the day: Jacinto Lucas Pires, Teolindo Gersão, Patricia Portela, José Luís Peixoto, and Gonçalo Tavares. And of course Richard Zenith, perhaps the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English. One of the main organizing spirits behind it all is the marvelous fiction writer Jeff Parker.

But most of all, there’s Lisbon: the palimpsest of history on every street, the summer scent of grilling sardines, the beauty of the language, and the music, the music. Fado is the style most known outside of the country, but Portuguese music offers much, much more than that. There’s jazz, rock, folk, you name it, and because the creative genius of Portugal is particularly attuned to music (and literature too, let’s not forget literature, and did I mention food?), it’s all of a very high quality. These cultural riches are probably not a small part of how the Portuguese are surviving these difficult days of austerity. That, and lots of demonstrations.

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One of my favorite Portuguese bands is Madredeus. After the loss of their singer, Teresa Salgueiro, the band experimented with their musical identity for a while, but now they’re back with a new instrumental line-up that includes two violins, a cello, and the classically trained voice of Beatriz Nunes. Here’s their quietly stunning version of one of the oldest songs in the Madredeus repertoire, “Adeus . . . e nem voltei.”

The violin is also an important instrument in the music of Cape Verde (an African nation of nine islands and a former Portuguese colony). The singer Lura, born in Lisbon of Cape Verdean parents, brilliantly recreates the music of those islands, her voice both powerful and tender. I love the violin in her version of the song “Flor di nha esperanca”–it gives a chamber music touch to the slinky dance hall proceedings.

Will I be lucky enough to catch Madredeus or Lura in concert this summer? I doubt it. But whichever live music I make my way to, I know it’ll be wonderful.

Like what you’ve heard? Then try these posts, which also include videos of Portuguese music:

A Naifa (includes my take on José Luís Peixoto’s excellent novel, The Implacable Order of Things)

Bernardo Sassetti

Or you could read “The Pleasures of Saudade,” my article on the thrilling range of contemporary Portuguese music, which includes numerous videos and MP3s, here at The Morning News.

Interested in Portuguese literature? Try this post on the work of Fernando Pessoa.

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June 16th, 2013 by admin

Perhaps There is a Light Inside People

When I lived in Lisbon I exchanged a few e-mails with the writer José Luís Peixoto, but somehow we never managed to meet; my loss, particularly since it has taken me a couple of years to read his marvelous novel The Implacable Order of Things, which won the José Saramago Prize in 2001.

The novel is set in the farmland of Portugal’s Alentejo region, a world of low sloping hills, cork and olive trees, golden wheat fields, and a relentless heat that Peixoto captures here nicely: “The earth was its own silence on fire. The sun was a blazing heat lighting up the flame-colored air: the aura of a fire that was the aura of the earth, that was the light and the sun.”

Alentejo landscape

It’s a world where “swallows fly close to the ground, like harmless volleys from a slingshot,” and where characters can live well past 100 years, as if baked into a sort of semi-immortal beef jerky by the Alentejo’s ever-present sun. Peixoto further peoples his novel with Siamese twins who are joined at the pinky, a brutal giant, a scheming sheepdog, a man with no right arm or leg who somehow manages as the town’s premier carpenter, a cook who sculpts her meals into elaborate landscapes, and an oracular voice locked in a hallway chest that seems to hypnotize some of the characters with pronouncements like “Perhaps there’s a light inside people, perhaps a clarity; perhaps people aren’t made of darkness, perhaps certainties are a breeze inside people, and perhaps people are the certainties they possess.”

These individual certainties, though, are almost never shared by the characters, who are unable to breach their invisible interior walls, and this lack of connection sets in place turns of fate that continue in the novel through not one but two generations.

Translated by Richard Zenith into a beautiful English that often rises to the rhythms of a desperate prayer, this novel’s accumulation of wisdoms lingers in my mind, particularly this hard truth: “We are granted our heart’s desire only for it to be definitively taken away, since our dream of it perishes.”

While I was reading Peixoto’s novel, I discovered by chance a Portuguese band that I have to confess to my shame I’d never noticed when living in Lisbon, A Naifa. Now I can’t stop listening to their music. They combine the traditions of fado with a contemporary, at times almost ambient rock sound, a strange brooding mixture of past and present. In many ways, the songs of their album “3 minutos antes de a maré encher” became the soundtrack for me of The Implacable Order of Things.

One of my favorite A Naifa songs is their heartbreaking “Todo o amor do mundo não foi suficiente” (“All the Love in the World Wasn’t Enough”). This video of the song is especially moving since it records one of the band’s last performances with their bassist, João Aguardela, who died too young of cancer in January 2009. Rest in peace, João.


And here’s a strange note: when I finally met up with José Peixoto, at the Disquiet International Literary Conference in Lisbon, he told me that he had written the lyrics for A Naifa’s song “Todo o amor do undo não suficiente.”

Interested in more of Peixoto’s work? Read about his travel experiences in North Korea, in the post “The Kinship of Secrets.”

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January 3rd, 2010 by admin