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from the June–July 2019 issue

“Lisbon Tales” Captures Various Angles of Portugal’s Capital, with a Focus on Salazar’s Dictatorship

Reviewed by David Frier

A new anthology collects a wide range of writing inspired by the Portuguese city, from Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago to authors from former colonies like Kalaf Angelo and Orlanda Amarílis, but it leaves out some key short-story writers.

Lisbon Tales is part of a long-running series of anthologies published by Oxford University Press seeking to collect some of the best writing set in or inspired by notable cities around the world and present it to an Anglophone audience. The addition of the Portuguese capital to this editorial project is a timely one as the city becomes an increasingly popular destination for foreign visitors. 

The selection of stories in this volume indicates a wish to represent a variety of visions of the city, with the translator citing “quality of writing” as the prime criterion for inclusion. Fourteen pieces are included, dating from the late nineteenth century (represented by the well-known cosmopolitan figure of Eça de Queirós) to the present day (with the final two contributions being blog posts by the Angolan writer and musician Kalaf Angelo). The genres and nationalities included are diverse, featuring an excerpt from the Nobel Prize Winner José Saramago’s travelogue Journey to Portugal and a short story by Orlanda Amarilis, a woman writer from Cabo Verde.

There are many fine inclusions here, with excellent stories by authors who will be largely unknown in the English-speaking world: two writers from former Portuguese colonies in Africa (Amarilis and Angelo); the long-term exile José Rodrigues Miguéis; the political dissident Soeiro Pereira Gomes (much of whose work could only be published in clandestine fashion under the Estado Novo dictatorship); and the contemporary figures of Teolinda Gersão, Hélia Correia, Mário Dionísio, and Mário de Carvalho. The latter's story “The Collectors” was my own personal favorite within this volume for its credible and beguiling portrayal of the fantastic within a recognizably contemporary setting. Among the other most striking stories were “Lost Refuge” by Soeiro Pereira Gomes, where the initial depiction of miserable living conditions on the fringes of the city is soon overtaken by the all-embracing angst of the political dissident seeking constantly to cover his tracks while continuing in his struggle, and Amarilis’s “Cais do Sodré Station,” which flits between the protagonist’s memories of her long-lost Cabo Verdean homeland and the realities of her life in Lisbon, leading to the eventual realization that she can never fully belong in her present environment nor truly identify any more with her homeland. In this story, then, the railway station as a point of transit comes to represent the main character’s painful inability to emerge from a state of in-between-ness: neither fully Portuguese, nor fully able to identify with her homeland.

Nonetheless, while the choice of stories selected for this volume will clearly be to some extent a question of personal taste, the nebulous formulation of “quality of writing” to justify inclusion in this collection remains less than convincing. In her introduction, the translator Amanda Hopkinson regrets that “the short story is not a particularly indigenous form” in Portuguese-speaking countries, but one may ask then why such notable writers of concise and compelling fictional accounts of Lisbon life as Maria Judite de Carvalho, Irene Lisboa, Lídia Jorge, and José Cardoso Pires (to name but four obvious candidates) have been omitted, when many of the tales included could not be described as short stories at all (and when one writer is represented by two pieces). There is, in fact, a long tradition of the short story in Portugal, but many of the finest examples of the genre have been published (initially at least) in multiple-authored anthologies or journals, where the authors’ identities do not achieve the prominence given to the novel; yet some of the most inventive and experimental writing in Portugal is conducted precisely in the form of short fiction.

The choice of a tantalizingly short excerpt from Eça’s Alves & Co. gives the impression that this author is represented more out of a sense of obligation to his reputation than because this particular story was well suited to this volume, but even if Eça is regarded as essential (as a result of his international reputation) it remains unclear why, for example, the full text of his masterful short story “José Matias” was not chosen instead. The story that represents the equally canonical figure of Fernando Pessoa (taken from the chest of miscellaneous manuscripts discovered after his death) is also incomplete and not among his best work on the city; perhaps it might have been better to choose an excerpt from The Book of Disquiet, where (contrary to the translator’s insistence that his portrayal of Lisbon is “characteristically free of description of the external world”) the life and scenery of the city are often represented in vividly recognizable forms. On the other hand, the inclusion of Agustina Bessa-Luís (largely associated with the rural north of Portugal) seems peculiar in that there is no explicit allusion within her story at any point to a setting in the capital, and it is as likely to be based in Porto as in Lisbon. 

The translator’s introduction indicates a particular focus on writers from the Salazar dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century, a dark period in Portugal’s history, following the tone set by the rather drab black-and-white cover image of a solitary woman on a bleak-looking city staircase. While the stories chosen all have their merit, the mixture as a whole could perhaps have displayed greater variety in character and tone. I longed for stories reflecting in some way, for example, the exuberance of the June processions and festivities of the cidade triste e alegre (“city both sad and joyful”) celebrated by Pessoa’s famous heteronym Álvaro de Campos.  

The rendering of the stories in English is fluent, appealing, and (as far as I could tell in the case of those texts with which I was already familiar in Portuguese) faithful to the original, with helpful explanatory footnotes added when required. It might have been useful, however, in making sense of the powerful conclusion to Saramago’s chapter on Lisbon to have clarified that the Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo whom the author wished symbolically to propel into hell was the very same Marquês de Pombal mentioned at the beginning of the final paragraph who was responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of the city after the 1755 earthquake.

There is much to enjoy in this collection, and there would undoubtedly be scope for a further volume dedicated to Lisbon in this series; certainly there have been many writers, Portuguese and otherwise, throughout the centuries reflecting on this fascinating city. A comparison with the companion Barcelona volume suggests that the section dedicated to further reading about the city could also have been expanded somewhat. But the reader who wishes to discover Lisbon through fictional writing in English will still find much to savor; I would simply suggest that, for any second edition, the translator and publishers attempt to add some ingredients to enrich the variety of the offering.

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