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The Literature of Lisbon

Over the last few years Lisbon, or Lisboa, has become a particularly trendy holiday destination. This is probably due, in part, to relatively cheap flights and accommodation, but also because it’s quickly becoming an artistic hub now that London and Berlin’s prices and unemployment levels are pushing creatives away.

Last Summer, I too found myself in Lisbon and marveled at the fusion of new and old all over the city, from the multicoloured stacked housing on the cobblestone hills to the pristine seafront, the endless roadworks and structural maintenance to the Praça do Comércio and the Belém Tower. There was a lot going on and it was obvious that the city was battling with the demands so much increased tourism brings.

But what a stunning city. The weather was a steady 28C, perfect for sitting on rickety little tables outdoors with a beer and some caldo verde, salted cod, or sardines. All I needed to complete that picture was a book, so I decided to immerse myself in the literary history of the city and bought a number of books before leaving Dublin.

Exemplary Tales

Don’t tell anyone from Porto I’ve added Andresen to my list. She was actually born there, but lived and died in Lisbon. A poet, writer and translator of some renown, she won numerous awards and published many collections of poetry and prose, including children's books. This short story collection was published in 1962 and is a slice of her masterful prose in which refined simplicity is key. The ten short stories are a mix of fable-like symbolism and personal anecdotes, all written in exact, delicately structured, lyrical sentences. “The Trip” is my personal favourite. She is definitely a writer to explore.

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The Book of Disquiet

Probably Lisbon’s greatest literary export, Pessoa is regarded as the greatest Portuguese poet and his presence is inescapable in the city (there’s even a statue of him outside Café A Brasileira on Garrett Street). A man of many talents, Pessoa also wrote in English and French, and was known to dabble in prose, translations, and literary criticism. He died in 1935 leaving behind an enormous amount of unfinished works and piles of paperwork. One such work was this novel which follows the steps of alter-ego Bernardo Soares as wanders the city of Lisbon deep in reflective thought. From a Portuguese perspective, it is revered in much the same way that Dubliners revere Ulysses. It is a big book with a similar sprawl and chaotic mix of existentialist thought and fragmentary construction, but it’s possibly easier to read. A mesmerizing read that will have you exploring the city and wandering down little side streets and back alleys in no time.

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Pereira Maintains

Tabucchi was a lover of Portugal and a writer and academic who taught Portuguese. He would become an honorary citizen of Portugal and even go on to translate Pessoa’s poems. While on a trip to Lisbon, he fell in love with the city and the traditional fado music. He was a prodigious writer, churning out books in his native tongue and Portuguese and 25 years after that first visit he would publish Pereira Maintains in 1994 to huge critical acclaim. It follows the story of Dr. Pereira, a journalist for a small local newspaper dealing with life under the fascist rule of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968). Tabucchi’s book is about one man’s awakening as he steps from the shadows and onto the stage.The central character is a very likely protagonist and becomes somewhat of an accidental and reluctant hero. Pereira, once determined to avoid any involvement in politics and to remain completely unfettered by his nation in crisis, gradually succumbs to the influence of a man working for him, the charismatic Francesco Monteiro Rossi. It’s a relatively short but powerful book, and it’s hugely rewarding.

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The Fat Man and Infinity

Alongside Pessoa, Antunes is another colossal name. Born and bred in Lisbon, his one love in life, even from an early age, was writing. Antunes’ works tend to be big weighty epics full of dense prose – he is often compared to Conrad and Faulkner – but he’s certainly a unique writer, often focusing on the small man, on family, our existence, the meaning of life and death, framing and reframing his past experiences for use in his novels (working in a military hospital in Angola for example). A cut-up collage variation of the typical memoir prototype, The Fat Man and Infinity is the perfect starting point for anyone trying to get into the mind of the great man. Turning his gaze away from the horizon this time and compiling a more introspective book, Fat Man is a book of moments, random thoughts and memories from childhood, through his younger years as a man and up to the very day he sat to write it. A very approachable read.

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Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More