Travel with books – Lisbon

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Over 6 months after my trip to Lisbon, I am finally ready to tell you about what the city and the books held for me. As with Vienna, Lisbon is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination for me, and you may notice that my take on this post is a little different from previous ones: this time I took the books as suggestions of what to go and discover in Lisbon. Because of that, this post also fits Libby‘s new event, the Book Pilgrimage.

It is hard to keep my eyes fresh after visiting a place so many time, but books do help to discover new facets even of the best-known town.

The Christ the King statue is not mentioned in any of the books I read, but on this trip I had the chance to see it up close

My reading list (links are to my thoughts):

The ferry was the only way to cross the Tagus before this bridge was built in 1966

First, following the example of Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon, I intended to take a ferry to cross the Tagus — except, I was sidetracked, because I found a convenient river cruise leaving from the same terminal! It clearly does not have the same feeling, but I appreciated the experience.

The Belem Tower, looking like a ship ready to sail

The good thing about the cruise is that we managed to reach and see the Belem Tower, which wold not fit our earlier programs. When you visit the tower (which we did on a previous occasion), you see a nosy sculpture and you learn about the first rhinoceros to be brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers in early 16th century. You can read the full story here on Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to recall it because in The Indies Enterprise Orsenna gives a good fictionalized account of the rhino’s arrival and of the reaction of people in Lisbon. Unfortunately I cannot share the scene with you because I only have the French version of this book, but if you happen to have the English translation, I’d be grateful if you shared the quote in the comments!

The Lisbon castle, as seen from Praça do Comercio

The best part of the day, though, was following the indications given by Saramago and retrace Raimundo Silva’s steps on what was once the Moorish line of fortifications around the city. I have to admit I never felt the charm of this part of Lisbon as strong as on that day. (Following quotes are from the English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, taken from Google Books.)

The idea, which came to him as he watched the roof-tops descending like steps as far as the river, is to follow the lay-out of the Moorish fortifications according to the scant and rather dubious information provided by the historian, as he himself had the good grace to acknowledge.

Lisbon rooftops. The many cruise ships detracted a bit from our 12th-century experience

Raimundo Silva will peruse more slowly whatever remains to be inspected, another section of the wall in the Pátio do Senhor da Murça, the Rua da Adiça, where the wall rose up, and that of Norberto de Araújo, as the street was recently baptised, at the summit an imposing stretch of wall, eroded at the base, these are truly living stones, they have been here for nine centuries, if not longer, from the time of the barbarians, and they survive, they intrepidly support the bell-tower of the church of St Lucy or St Brás, it makes no difference, at this spot, ladies and gentlemen, opened the ancient Portas do Sol, facing eastward, the first to receive the rosy breath of dawn, now all that remains is the square which took its name from this landmark…

Original Moorish wall: I had no idea there was some of it still preserved!

Actually, the plaque says the original wall predated Moorish time and dates back to the Visigots, even!

But here, right before Raimundo Silva’s eyes is a fragment, if not of the indestructible rampart itself, at least of a wall occupying the same space where the other stood, and descending all the way down the steps beneath a row of broad windows surmounted by tall gables.

Not the same segment mentioned in the text, but according to our guide this too was original Moorish wall, and it now houses a café called “Moorish walls”

As usual, here’s a list of more books set in Lisbon I wish to read sometime soon:

  • Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains
  • Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem: A Hallucination
  • José Saramago, Journey to Portugal
  • José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
  • Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon
  • José Rodrigues dos Santos, The Einstein Enigma
  • Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Have you read any of these? Any title that you wish to suggest/suggest to avoid? And have you ever visited Lisbon?

Book: People of the Book

The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)

The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!

In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:

The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna

Book: The Drawing of the Dark

The book: The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers

The edition: Del Rey Impact paperback, 324 pages

The story: aging sword-for-hire Brian Duffy reaches Vienna shortly before the Turk siege in 1529. He has been promised a job as bouncer in a local brewery, but it’s clear that something much more mysterious is at hand. And what does the famous Herzwesten beer have to do with saving the entire western world from the invading Turkish armies?

My experience with the book & my thoughts: when I bought this book, I had no idea what I was in for, but it was just as well because the book itself is different from anything else that I have ever read. It combines mythology and history to create a fantasy that is completely different from the usual. It reminded me a lot of American Gods for the way it treats myths (except of course I know it’s the other way round, because this one was written long before Gaiman’s), and then it takes the story built around those myths and steeps it in an historical (and well researched) context. And all this it does with grace and perfect balance. A little gem of a book, and I wish I had read this earlier!

The part with spoilers: I was expecting Epiphany to have a bigger role in saving the West (what with her name, and her father being a clairvoyant, and Lothario seeing some of Guinevere in her). Also, what’s the point of alternating the names Aurelius/Aurelianus if the name he tries to hide is another one? (Ooops, sorry! My bad for not checking twice. The name alternating in the book are Ambrosius/Aurelianus, and apparently Ambrosius is a given name for Merlin. Never knew that!)

What I liked: just about everything: characters, context, magic, myth, beer legends, and even a glimpse of my homelands! 🙂

What I didn’t like: I only wish I could read more of it, it was too short! Also, the edition I have has a cheap cover that creates this strange effect (and this was even before reading):

Language & writing: there’s a lot of strange (to me) words, but they’re all part of the “ambiance”, the historical setting.

In the author’s own words: this one may be a bit spoiler-y (not too much, really), but the idea is so good that I just had to share it:

“Listen, three thousand years before Christ was born, a people came out of Spain and spread across Europe. They were nomads, strangers wherever they went, but respected–nearly worshipped–because they brought with them the secret of beer-making. They spread the art of brewing with a missionary zeal–you can find their decorated beakers in graves from Sicily to the northern tip of Scotland. The fermented gift they brought to Europe is the basis of more beliefs than I dare tell you right now; but I will tell you that in the very oldest versions f the story it was beer, not fire, that Prometheus stole from the gods and brought to man.”

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: why does everyone seem to like beer? I can’t stand it.

Random suggested reading: have a look at these etymology essays about beer and the rest: ale, ale(2), beer, mead, mead(2), booze and toasts.

Read this if: if you liked American Gods; also, if you are interested in Arthuriana or Norse mythology; and more generally if you like fantasy.

Counts as: Travel with books – Vienna

Book: The Indies Enterprise

The book: The Indies Enterprise, by Erik Orsenna

The edition: French (original) version, as published by Livre de Poche (paperback), 378 pages

The story: old and on the verge of death, Bartolomeo Columbus, younger brother of the more famous Christopher, tells the story of his brother’s obsession with a new route to the Indies, how it shaped their lives and how this exquisite passion for discovery lead to genocide and destruction.

My experience with the book & my thoughts:I wanted to read this because it is mainly set in Lisbon and written in French. But Orsenna is not an author I like, I already suspected it and here it was confirmed. I’m at loss as for what the general sense of this book should be, but it touches on so many subjects (the relationship between older and younger brother, books as a way of navigating the world, science against religion, to name but a few) that I guess it would make a great book club choice.

What I liked: medieval myths and half-knowledges used to build a scenario for the story.

What I didn’t like: the frame for the main story, with old Bartolomeo in Santo Domingo, looking back and trying to dissect his life in search of a seed for the cruelty.

In the author’s own words: there were several things I’d like to share, too bad I could only share them in French!

Random thought: the Padrão Real. Wow.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction mixed with philosophical fiction

Counts as: Travel with books – Lisbon

Book: The Agony and the Ecstasy


The book: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone

The edition: Arrow Fiction paperback, 777 pages, with bibliography, glossary of Italian words and a list of where Michelangelo’s works are to be found at present

The story: of the life and work of Michelangelo Buonarroti, from the day he joins Ghirlandaio’s bottega at 12, to the day of his death at near 90.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: oh how I loved this book. It may be because it was unexpected (I had not read anything this good since 2010 — huh, early 2010 — and, come on, after all it’s not fiction, it wasn’t supposed to be that good! I am was not a fan of biographies, as you can see 🙂 ), but still.
There isn’t much plot once you know something about Michelangelo’s life (and I did), but Stone was able to keep up the tension work by work and obstacle by obstacle as Buonarroti encountered them during his life. And he made it all come to life so fiercely, Michelangelo’s passion, and the Roman court’s intrigues, and the purity of the marble in Carrara, and the Sistine Chapel, its colors, and how Michelangelo cannot step back from that work even though he wants to, but he knows he can make it perfect and so he cannot stop short of perfection. It was all so lively that for the whole time I was reading this book I dreamed Italian Renaissance dreams each night! 🙂
To be fair, this book is not perfect either. At times I got a bit confused at the many courtiers and side characters and missed their family relations altogether. And I was disappointed by the last part, which seems to be written in a hurry, years going by so fast you don’t realize it and the whole Last Judgment completed before you take notice. It may well be that Stone wanted to mirror the way years go by faster as you grow older (I think there is a poem by Michelangelo on that subject), but I would have preferred if he kept the pace of the first three quarters (and yes, even if it meant 1500 pages instead of 777, I’d have read them with a passion).

What I liked: the way the author dealt with historical parts. Context is very tricky, and I have seen very good books trip on the historical frame and go off babbling about this battle and that intrigue while the reader is left yawning (cue The Cathedral of the Sea). Here, on the other hand, it is done wonderfully, with all the historical and political context told through the deeds and acts of some of the characters, be they Popes or Medicis.

What I didn’t like: Michelangelo himself, extremely proud as he is. True, he had a God-given talent, but in this book he is all too conscious of that, and what’s more it is a pity the book never dwelt on where talent comes from.

Language & writing: lots of interesting words. Also, the author got its Italian almost perfect, and had a very good ear for the way Tuscan people use proverbs:

“Art is like washing an ass’s head with lye,” observed Francesco, for the Tuscan’s wisdom is a web of proverbs; “you lose both the effort and the lye. “

and for their love of a bawdy comment as well:

“I have no interest in the female form.”
“You’re summarily dismissing half the figures to the world.”
“Roughly, yes.[…] For me, a woman to be beautiful or exciting must be absolutely still.”
“Perhaps you just haven’t put them into the proper positions.”

In the author’s own words: I found descriptions of Michelangelo’s creative fire at work fascinating:

He had removed the outer shell. Now he dug into the mass, entered in the biblical sense. In this act of creation there was needed the thrust, the penetration, the beating and pulsating upward to a mighty climax, the total possession. It was not merely an act of love, it was the act of love: the mating of his own inner patterns to the inherent forms of the marble; an insemination in which he planted seed, created the living work of art.

and again:

Hammer and chisel in hand, he stood back from the galvanic male figure before him, still faceless,standing on a rough-gouged base to show the material from which it had emerged, thinking that from the very beginning the marble had yielded to love: pliable, vulvar. With marble he was the dominant male; his was the choice, his the conquest. Yet coming together with the object of his love, he had been all tenderness. The block had been virginal but not frigid; it had been set on fire by his own white heat. Statues came out of the marble, but not until the tool had penetrated and seeded its female form. From love came all of life.

And another thing I loved was the scalpellini‘s simplicity:

The scalpellino’s words are few and simple, matching in length the single blow of the hammer. When he chips at the stone he does not speak at all: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven: no word from the lips, only the rhythm of the shoulder and the moving hand with the chisel. Then he speaks, in the period of pause: one, two, three, four. The sentence must fit the rest count of four or it remains unsaid or incomplete. If the thought must be involved it will be spaced between several work counts of seven, filling two or three counts of four. But the scalpellino has learned to confine his thinking to what can be expressed in the single four-count pause.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I remember seeing a scene from the movie, but would like to see it whole next time.

Read this if: if you are in any way interested in Renaissance Italy, art, sculpture, or anything in between, do read it.

Counts as: Travel with books – Rome; Italy in Books #8