Beyond the Tejo

By JEFF PARKER

It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.

I am supposed to be writing an introduction to the Lusosphere portfolio in the magazine that you hold in your hands. But it’s hard to focus. Like many, I’m consumed by anxiety and fear.  

Prior to this, I have spent every summer since 1998 abroad. Not as glamorous as it might sound: Nineteen of those years were spent largely on the clock, working for international literary programs, first in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then in Lisbon.

I am, however, accustomed to the terrors of travel. Less familiar are the terrors of staying home, particularly when the world keeps triggering your flight reflex.

To abate the anxiety and stress I have raised thirty tomato plants from seed, acquired a puppy, built a crooked fence, and spent most of my time immersed in pretend scenarios (Country Mouse & City Mouse, Peter Rabbit & Benjamin Bunny, etc.) with my daughter.

But then after watching a YouTube video on pruning, I mistakenly decapitated all the tomato plants. I keep getting irrationally frustrated by the puppy’s being a puppy. I knew the fence would be crooked, but this crooked? The only un-asterisked joy comes from the time spent with my daughter but then of course a three-year-old has considerably more energy than a forty-six-year-old. I’m not the best Benjamin Bunny that I could be.

At this moment, Americans are not allowed into Portugal nor into many other countries.

Times like these set one to worry. And far down the list of immediate worries, well beyond concerns about mask filters and how far exactly is six feet and decapitated tomatoes and crooked fences, lurks that ever-present concern, Does literature matter?

And why, right at this moment, when in this country more than a hundred thousand are dead from a virus and Black people continue to be murdered by police in the streets and in their homes, should you or I turn our attention to the work of writers from the Lusophone world?

On both counts, if I’m being honest, I don’t have the answers.

But for me this particular portfolio is, among other things, transporting. It has lifted me out of the funk and the fear and out of my own backyard and dropped me into Lisbon, where I was supposed to be now. If you are familiar with that place, there are many joys and reminiscences to be found here, and if you are not familiar, it will throw wide your curiosity. The duplicitous secret police officer in Casey Walker’s story “Vigilância” notes that Lisbon seems “like a city built for looking at itself.”

Indeed one can spend much time in Lisbon traipsing about to find a new spot to see it from, which gives the city a certain deconstructing-of-the-self feel. Just don’t get the mistaken impression you know it because you’ve seen it from so many angles. Between this and that miradouro are oceans of labyrinthine pathways upon whose cobblestones you will never set foot.

According to legend, Lisbon, derived from Olissipo or Ulyssippo, was named for Ulysses, founder of the original settlement. As Teolinda Gersão writes in her novel City of Ulysses, Lisbon is “a real city founded by a fictional character.”

Gersão’s story “The Donor” in this issue, about a skateboarding sperm donor once drunk on fantasies of his own virility, ends on a powerful articulation of loneliness. Life does not turn out well for him, and of the children his sperm may or may not have helped produce, he thinks, “If one of them attempted to get in touch, I would never agree to meet. I wouldn’t want them to see me in this state, for them to find out what I’ve become. I would like to see them, though, but without them seeing me, to know more about them, to see a few photos perhaps. A trace of me left in the world.”

If anyone has left a trace on the city of Lisbon it is Fernando Pessoa, an enigmatic force fitting of a real city founded by an unreal person. Pessoa infamously wrote from the perspectives of more than seventy heteronyms, alter egos with elaborate backstories, philosophies, and literary aesthetics. One of his most famous poems, “The Tobacco Shop,” attributed to the heteronym Álvaro do Campos, begins:

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
(trans. Richard Zenith)

Pessoa’s heteronym project and Campos’ mode of inquiry owe a debt to Whitman’s “I contain multitudes.” Nonetheless I’ve always thought that Pessoa presents a compelling counterbalance to the quest for American individualism and its various manifestations: from the idea of finding yourself to the creative writing workshop adage about finding your voice. What a liberating thing for any American human—especially a writer—to hear, that you don’t have this great responsibility to be one self; you can simply be the many different people that you are.

Whitman was also “the most intimate influence” on another of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro, on whom the excerpt here from Zenith’s long-awaited biography of Pessoa focuses. Zenith explains that the fictional poet Caeiro was “a reaction against Fernando Pessoa—against all his learning and incessant wrangling.” Campos, writing of the day that Caeiro “met” Pessoa, described the effect the heteronym had on the poet as a “great vaccine” against one of the poet’s most debilitating tendencies.

Zenith goes on: “Campos claimed that, because of the inoculating effect of Caeiro, which somewhat counteracted Pessoa’s ‘overwrought intelligence,’ all the poems he would write from then on would be different from the ones he wrote before meeting Caeiro.”

 

Quite by accident I’m sure, “Anxiety and Fear” could be a subtitle for the otherwise disparate works assembled here. And Lisbon is just one stop on the ride. The writing here transports you to Mértola in Portugal’s Alentejo and to Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, and Mozambique, among other places.

Edgar Garbelotto, a writer and translator born in Brazil but based in the U.S. for many years, crafts an imagined homage to the last hours of Clarice Lispector. Lispector infamously escaped death in 1966, after falling asleep with a lit cigarette and setting the bed on fire, burning herself and her papers and projects. Eleven years later she died of ovarian cancer. In Garbelotto’s imagining, Lispector on the verge of death is burdened by the fact that she is “dispensable and unnecessary,” that “the world will continue to exist and transform itself without her.”

In the dreamlike “Sea of Azov” by Brazilian journalist Hélio Pólvora, translated by Amanda Sarasien, the death of a man’s mother in a car accident is the catalyst for reexamining an earlier episode from his life, a bike ride he took along the coast with his father. During the trip, as the boy longed to visit an exotic sea on the border of Russia, he sought advice on masculinity and the meaning of life. He crashed and had to ride the rest of the way with a broken arm. “Life is as difficult as… carrying a cup filled with water,” his father tells him.

A different kind of father-son journey features in José Pinto de Sá’s “Maria, I’m Going to War,” translated by Jethro Soutar. “Going to war” here means “going out in the dead of night to David’s bar, playing hide and seek with military patrols.” Pinto de Sá is from Mozambique, a playwright, translator, and writer born in 1948. The story, set during the Mozambican Civil War, depicts a country in lockdown. Contingents of one group or another, “our lot” and “their lot,” constantly battle in the streets. In the midst of this, the father decides to take his son out to a place of camaraderie, commiseration, and information-sharing, inducting him into the realities of the nation’s conflicts.

In an excerpt from his memoir, also translated by Jethro Soutar, Joaquim Arena writes of returning to Cape Verde from Portugal after the death of his stepfather. Arena confronts the fact that he’s spent his life inhabiting multiple worlds. In addition to being of mixed racial heritage, he is partly a child of Cape Verde and partly a denizen of Portugal’s capital city. In a reckoning Pessoa would appreciate, he writes, “I abandon the island where I’ve spent the last few years trying to recover a life denied to me as the child of emigrants, trying to solve the age-old problem of my identifying skin. I’d come to fulfill a wish, but it was an idealized life and now it’s run its course. Time to reclaim my other life, the one waiting for me back in Lisbon, the one where I follow in the footsteps of the man pretending to be me.”

Lusa-American writer Katherine Vaz gripped me by the heart on the first page of “The Treasure Hunt of August Dias”: “My mother had been an illustrator in special demand for her watercolors of plants, and I lost her on the razor’s edge of memory, when I was four and a drunk driver hit her car as she was leaving a begonia farm.” That “razor’s edge of memory” and the specific detail of the begonia farm manage the heartbreak. But the story resides in that special state of emotional intensity that comes with attending the deathbed of a relative, in this case, the narrator’s father. Despite his suffering he concocts a citywide treasure hunt exclusively for his daughter to find a swan brooch. She plays along, wondering at his motivations. When her father weeps for his own mortality, the narrator notes, “I got through it by telling myself this was the worst thing that could happen during the worst thing that could happen.”

Vaz is best known in Portugal and the US for her novel Mariana, which imagines the point of view of Mariana Alcoforado, a seventeenth century nun and author of a series of love letters to a French officer. The Letters From a Portuguese Nun, which became an international hit, has endured many centuries of adoration, scrutiny, and disagreement over authorship. Another Lusa-American author, Oona Patrick, offers an homage to Mariana and a page-turning inquiry into the gender politics of this beguiling text in “Nobody Goes to Mértola.”

Patrick’s essay begins with her arrival to the interior of Portugal, the Alentejo, meaning “beyond the Tejo,” after having been warned that no one travels there this time of year. She stays at an artist’s colony “surrounded by persimmon and olive trees, nine cats, seven dogs, six horses” not to mention drunk hunters firing shots in all directions at all hours. She sleeps in a canopy bed she abhors under a roof crowded with screeching peacocks.

Come to find out, the view from the convent that Mariana lived in and the place where she first saw the French officer “looked in an almost direct line, interrupted by hills, to my balcony, only thirty-three miles away.” Patrick was on a literary pilgrimage and didn’t even know it. The episode takes place at a dark time for the author, and there are harrowing moments. The weave of travel writing, personal essay, and literary criticism is expert.

The Alentejo is home for José Luís Peixoto, who has made a career of depicting it in fiction with a strong emphasis on the social milieu, particularly on family. His poem in this issue however is about arriving in a looted city, unnamed, where “the air is clean because no one is breathing.”

In other poems, Landa wo juxtaposes myth and political realities in Angola. Cristina Carlos rails against racial inequities in Portugal. João Luís Barreto Guimarães witnesses love of sorts outside a Deutsche Bank. Shauna Barbosa sings.

 

My beheaded tomato plants survived. They grew wide at first and then started reaching up again. Some of them are seven feet tall right now, with muscular trunks and bursting with as-yet-unripened fruit. The handful that I didn’t behead are spindly and narrow in comparison and have fewer tomatoes.

City Mouse continues to visit Country Mouse, to be frightened of the cow and the goose and the owl and to invite Country Mouse back to the city where she is scared of the cars and fire engines, the cats and vacuum cleaners. They cannot agree which place is better, but my daughter and I have tacked on an end in which they value friendship above all.

The puppy ate two raisins from my daughter’s granola the other day. We texted the vet when we pulled into the parking lot and they came out and took him in and saved his kidneys.

I feel I must clarify something about the fence. One of the reasons we bought the house was that it backed up to wetlands and we would not need a fence. But seeing the bobcats and coyotes and fisher cats that traffic through our yard was no longer a thrill with a young child playing out there. The deer that I tolerated eating our bushes for seven years were suddenly responsible for the ticks crawling on her back every time she went to her swing set. Circumstances change. Variables shift.

I once heard Susana Moreira Marques, a devastatingly powerful writer whose blunt essay on motherhood is featured here, describe how exciting it was to grow up in Portugal in the days of European unification. “We had this feeling,” she said, “that borders were disappearing.”

Historical moments that look like points on a long continuum of progress may turn out to be irregular blips. Let’s hope we’re living through a brief regressive blip right now.

To my earlier questions, should we turn our attention to the literature of the Lusophone world because it escapes us from the confines of our respective quarantines? That’s as good a reason as any. Should we turn to it because the sense of anxiety and fear that pervades our present moment is mirrored here? Indeed. Should we turn to it because, particularly for Americans, the themes—empire/fall of empire, reckoning with the lasting legacies of colonialism, racism, sexism, immigration, revolution, notions of self and personal identity—are all too familiar? Yes. In part it’s all of these.

Also, when we read work like this, borders disappear.

 

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the story collection The Taste of Penny. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ploughshares, Tin House, and other publications. He co-edited two anthologies of contemporary Russian prose, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia and Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. He is the Co-Founder and Director of the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and the editor of the DISQUIET imprint of Dzanc Books. He teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[Purchase Issue 20 here.]

Beyond the Tejo

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