Lisbon has long been marked by a certain wistfulness. Perched at the westernmost edge of Europe, it has been a place of departures as much as of arrivals, its cobblestone streets perpetually echoing with the voices of those who have passed through. That is the city captured in “Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre,” a symphonic graphic poem first published in 1959 by Victor Palla and Costa Martins, whose grainy black-and-white images caught the essence of a place longing for change.
But for those who come with that vision, the city today will surprise with its diversity and color. While life in Lisbon may still be threaded with melancholy — exorbitant rents in the city center have forced many historic bookstores and centennial shops to close, and many longtime residents to move farther away — its streets are rich with literary tradition and vibrant with the contributions of new arrivals.
You can stroll in the city’s downtown and visit cafes, such as Martinho da Arcada, inaugurated in 1782, or A Brasileira, which opened in 1905 and where some of the country’s most renowned writers, including Fernando Pessoa, once met. Or you can take the rail line at Terminal do Rossio to Sintra, which was a source of inspiration for José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, one of Portugal’s great 19th-century novelists. But if you get off at the Amadora station and enter the Babilónia shopping center, you will find a lively mall that serves as a meeting point for the numerous migrant communities that make the city what it is today.
What should I read before I pack my bags?
Some of the city’s melancholic atmosphere is present in Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet.” It is written in the voice of Bernardo Soares, one of the alternate selves of Pessoa, who wrote under dozens of identities he referred to as heteronyms. The literary critic George Steiner wrote that the book “gives to Lisbon the haunting spell of Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague.”
In José Saramago’s “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis,” you will find Ricardo Reis, another of Pessoa’s fictional authors, back in Lisbon in late December 1935. He is there to visit Pessoa, his creator, at the cemetery — Pessoa had died in late November — at a time when Portugal is under fascist rule.
“In 1936, I was 14 years old, but I remember the sadness of the city,” Saramago once said about what inspired this novel. “Perhaps today’s readers will find some other manifestations of sadness and loneliness in the city today.”
Many of the greatest works of Portuguese literature — and much of the most exciting writing happening today — are not yet available in English translations.
But you will find good translations of the poetry of Cesário Verde, Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny, Ruy Belo and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen online at Poetry International and Poems From the Portuguese, an online platform run by Centro Nacional de Cultura, a local cultural institution. In some of their poems, you will find the streets you will walk on, from Cais das Colunas to Avenida da Liberdade.
The Common, a literary magazine available online, recently offered in their 20th issue a special portfolio of writing from Portugal and its colonial and linguistic diaspora, with works in English and in translation exploring Lisbon, Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde and Mozambique from writers such as Rui Cardoso Martins, Matilde Campilho, Joaquim Arena and Teolinda Gersão.
Susana Moreira Marques’s masterpiece “Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” a work of reportage about life and death set in a village in northern Portugal, is an example of the best contemporary Portuguese writing available in translation. As for poetry, “Cape Verdean Blues,” by Shauna Barbosa, will give you a sense of the multifaceted character of Cape Verdean culture in the diaspora. “What’s in a Name,” by the great Ana Luísa Amaral, will incite you to look with wonder into the minutiae of everyday life.
What books can give me a sense of life under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar?
The regime instituted by Salazar in 1933 lasted until 1974. “The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters,” by Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Teresa Horta, is an audacious and whimsical collective work against fascism. Considered “pornographic and a threat to public morality” when it was published, it led the government to put its authors on trial. “Empty Wardrobes,” a novel by Maria Judite de Carvalho, will give you a sense of domestic life under the dictatorship: In precise, unsentimental prose, it tells the story of three generations of women overshadowed by the death of a patriarch.
What books can give me a sense of the city’s colonial past?
The Portuguese empire, which included colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa, was also one of the most enduring. Its legacy is vivid in Lisbon today.
To witness it, you can go to Cova da Moura, the home of a large community of migrants from countries including Cape Verde, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, among others, and pay a visit to Dentu Zona, a bookstore and silk-screen printing workshop where you will find a carefully curated selection of books about the city’s colonial past and works by major authors of African descent.
If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, there are many books and authors to choose from. “South of Nowhere,” one of António Lobo Antunes’s masterpieces, is a tense monologue told by an Angolan war veteran to a solitary woman he meets in a bar. A prose poem addressed to a silent interlocutor, and a memoir of the horrors of the war as witnessed by the author himself, it is a superb book with which to start.
Dulce Maria Cardoso’s “The Return” starts in Angola in 1975. The Salazar dictatorship has collapsed and the defeat of the Portuguese in the Angolan War of Independence is in sight. The narrator, Rui, is 15 years old. He is one of the thousands of settlers who are returning to Portugal, a place where he has never been. The novel will give you a sense of the contradictions and mythologies at play at the time of the Carnation Revolution, which led to the end of the dictatorship in 1974.
Francisco Bethencourt’s ambitious and interdisciplinary “Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century” is a great scholarly work to start with if you’re interested in learning more about the roots of racism in Portugal. The Angolan writer and musician Kalaf Epalanga — whose novel “Whites Can Dance Too,” forthcoming from Faber in 2023, is excerpted in an online issue of Bakwa, a literary magazine based in Cameroon — is a great example of a new generation of writers of African descent. The untold perspectives of the African diaspora remain largely underrepresented in Portuguese literature. Their concerns and aspirations are hardly ever given the depth of first-person narratives. Epalanga’s musical, upbeat, first-person tale of a young Black man searching for himself in today’s Europe gives hope for the future.
What’s a good place to curl up with a book on a day off? Any bookstores I should visit?
For reading in the shade of centennial trees on summer days, I recommend Lisbon’s Botanical Garden at Rua da Escola Politécnica, where you will find a very old dragon tree. Visit Casa Fernando Pessoa, Fundação José Saramago and Brotéria for lively conversations about books. And independent bookstores such as Poesia Incompleta, Snob, Tigre de Papel, Linha de Sombra, Photo Book Corner, STET and Letra Livre offer excellent selections of poetry, independent and rare editions, photo books, old books and other treasures.
Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s Lisbon Reading List
“Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre,” Victor Palla and Costa Martins
“The Book of Disquiet,” Fernando Pessoa
“The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis,” José Saramago
Poetry by Cesário Verde, Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny, Ruy Belo and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
“Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” Susana Moreira Marques
“Cape Verdean Blues,” Shauna Barbosa
“What’s in a Name,” Ana Luísa Amaral
“The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters,” Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Teresa Horta
“Empty Wardrobes,” Maria Judite de Carvalho
“South of Nowhere,” António Lobo Antunes
“The Return,” Dulce Maria Cardoso
“Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century,” Francisco Bethencourt
“Whites Can Dance Too,” Kalaf Epalanga