Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

3 thoughts on “Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s