Blindness and Seeing

Never until I visited Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, had I seen a two-hundred yard long line formed by the young and the old, by Portuguese as well as nationals from all over the world, waiting patiently for their turn to come to enter a bookstore. The line started a couple of blocks away from the store’s entrance. The line was there from early in the morning to early in the evening, and on the following day, and on the next one too. I couldn’t imagine what was going on inside the store. Was this Porto’s only bookstore left? Were they fighting over books? Were they scrambling over each other to get to the cash register? Was it Shakespeare himself who was reading and autographing?

Then I learned that one has to pay €3.00 to get inside this book store, Librario Lello & Irmão. Paying money to enter a bookstore? What is going on?

Luckily, next door I discovered a Lello & Irmão gift-book store which was spacious and light and bright, and where I found no more than ten or eleven others beside me nosing around the shelves with books and book-related items, or sitting on comfortable sofas browsing through their finds. “Next door?” smiled a staff member. “Well, the best moment to visit the big store is on Wednesdays and I advise to go in the morning, because in the afternoon the place may fill up.” On other days, and especially during holiday weekends and high tourist season, this must be the most popular bookstore on earth, although I doubt if more than 10% of its visitors indeed buy a book there. They come for the store, especially for the interior architecture of the 110 year-old building. It is said to have a spectacular wooden staircase—I don’t know, I didn’t make it inside, I enter bookstores to sniff them out and eventually to purchase and exit with my discovery, not to follow a throng of tourists.

But on off-season Wednesdays, yes, Lello & Irmão at 144 Rua das Carmelitas must be worth a visit; next time in Porto, I will make sure the midweek is included so I can not only enter but linger at leisure as well. Porto’s official Visitor Guide spreads the rumor that J.K. Rowling took details of the store’s interior for some décor in her Harry Potter series. I hear she lived for more than a year in Porto, taught English, and used the city, and Lello’s, for inspiration. Someone else wrote after a first visit to the store:

“This is what Heaven looks like to me.”

The architecture (with its Neo-Gothic façade with Art Nouveau elements such as pinnacles and stained-glass windows) and the interior architecture (with its Art Deco elements) are indeed stunning, as photographs prove. Inside, it is the forked staircase that connects to the second floor with detailed wood balusters that attracts all the attention. This must-see store is on Portugal’s list of Monuments of Public Interest, so no one should complain about the public indeed showing their interest, even if they are the kind that never read a book. There is a second most interesting place in Porto I haven’t visited, although on images it looks just as inviting as Lello’s. It is Café Majestic at 112 Rua Santa Catarina, a “monument of a café,” a famous “tearoom packed with cherubs, gilded woodwork, leather seats and gold-braided waiters.” It is said they do elegant breakfasts and lunches, teas and drinks and snacks, but I haven’t ventured there yet because on my holiday weekend in Porto I expected maybe not eager lines in front, but crowds nevertheless. Next time I won’t miss it; the place is not called “the city’s heart” for nothing. Not that there isn’t anything else to see and do in Porto. What a great city! My personal #3 in the world, it can compete with Paris as well as San Francisco, although San Francisco only scores so high because of its utterly overwhelming Bay.

The Portuguese writer J. Rentes de Carvalho, who escaped to the Netherlands during the dictatorship (his daughter Monica worked in the Amsterdam-based design studio I was one of the partners of in the 1980s), wrote the following about Porto (in my translation): “So many times I have explored this city, the playground of my young adolescent years, that even now its corners and streets are familiar and loved. Maybe I am too enthusiast, but you will surely understand my devotion. The city is not merely a postcard of the present or a history book of the past, but my own deeply personal memory. It is thanks to the enormous variety of wide views opening up to new perspectives and the so different cultures and atmospheres one encounters, that the city does not really need the layer of varnish with which the tourist industry loves to cover anything to look ‘authentic’.” Carvalho wrote this many years ago (in his “guide for friends”). By 2017, “the tourist industry,” growing and growing, may have put a little gold paint onto some of Porto’s more rusty qualities, but not so that this will destroy the rich experience of the atmosphere-appreciating traveler. So far I also missed visiting 126 Praça de Liberdade where Café Imperial is a must, according to Carvalho. The old interior is said to be fascinating and it remained unchanged even after McDonalds took over the place in 1995. Okay, one Big Mac to go (to).

Talking about books. There is no coincidence, there is only “the luck of the draw,” good fortune, happenstance. Luck was what made our train from Lisbon to central Portugal stop at its end station, Tomar, where we found the last public road transportation to our planned destination farther north long departed. After one night in Tomar, our decision was made: this place fits us, let’s find a home. In the past, similar luck had taken us to Abiquiu, New Mexico for twelve great years and to Matfield Green, Kansas for altogether seven good years. So, when our first American visitor, from Kansas, left me a book she had just finished reading –a novel by the Portuguese Nobel Prize of Literature winner José Saramago in English translation she had picked up at Philadelphia Airport (where she missed the last connecting flight to Lisbon of that day) just to have something to read during her 24-hour delay– I saw it as a sign and opened the book, ‘Blindness’, as soon as she had left. Somewhat later I found a Saramago statement perfectly fitting Ans and my lifestyle: “Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions, decisions make us.” A good one, huh?

During my twenty-three American years I had lost touch with most contemporary literature from Europe. I had read mostly non-fiction anyway, lots related to the rise and fall of the American Empire and such, to American and Mexican life and especially their joint border history, or to local old and new circumstances and people in northern New Mexico and in the Flint Hills of Kansas. For fun I also read some of the Scandinavian crime noir writers; my favorite crime writer, though, became Michael McGarrity, who sent his lead character Kevin Kerney to many New Mexican locations I knew well from experience, where he solved crimes with a clear mind for decent police work. Well-written, I’d recommend McGarrity’s crime books (he also writes other novels) to anyone wanting to know more, or having good memories of life in contemporary New Mexico. I also read lots of non-fiction about France, for long one of my favorite countries, but not the one to move to permanently.

Portugal was never within my sphere of interest. The country suddenly showed up in my thoughts when a friend who had surfed in Peru told me his wild stories and, as a joke, each time something happened in Kansas or the US in general Ans and I were critical of, we reacted by saying: “Let’s move to Peru.” By the time we began thinking, “Maybe we should,” we gave it some serious thought and decided Peru might not be the ideal location to resettle, not at our non-surfing age; maybe we should aim for Europe. No more Peru. Question: “Is there an EU country with a P?” Poland. No way we would want to resettle in Poland, even before having read James Meek’s essay in the London Review of Books of a year later, in which he doesn’t know how to explain Poland’s swing against the EU.

“How to explain the election of the Catholic fundamentalist, authoritarian, populist Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party to rule a booming country that has benefited from more than €130 billion in EU investments … in a country where in 2004 hundreds of foreign factories and distribution centers opened, employing hundreds of thousands of people, a country whose citizens have” (after half a century of not exactly blossoming under the Communist regime) “taken advantage of EU freedom of movement, work and study across the continent in their millions?” This Poland is attacking the EU’s promotion of human rights, its secularism and multiculturalism; while the typical Pole is at least half as rich now as before. No way, not to Poland. What other P is in the EU?

Portugal? Mmm. Nice climate, great wine, contrasting landscapes, a vibrant social democracy, Spain and Morocco and what-not near at hand. Yes, why not Portugal? And that is why we are here. One hour away from the Atlantic Ocean’s eastern seaboard, two hours from the Portuguese-Spanish (wall-less) borderline. It is almost one year now since we became permanent residents, and we are still congratulating ourselves with the decision.

After arriving in “the old world” I read quite a few non-fiction and travel books about Portugal and the Portuguese, but I had not yet entered the world of their literature. Until ‘Blindness’ fell into my lap. Now I am hooked. What a discovery. Later, I will research other Portuguese authors, old and new, but for the moment I will stay with Saramago–a class on his own. In ‘Blindness’, Saramago took me along on a fast and furious journey through the experiences of a group of people who, like the rest of their nation, went blind all of a sudden (and mind you, the book was written way before the US and the UK voted The Trump and Kim Jong-May respectively into office). All human weaknesses and strengths show up in marvelous statements and strong sentences some of which are more than one page long. Rest assured, one gets accustomed to Saramago’s story building—and soon finds it likeable if not loveable. I will not go into the details of the story. It absorbs. It is as recognizable as it is weird. It is the best of contemporary literature, I promise you.

I am ready to move on to ‘Seeing’, its sequence; and after that one, to Saramago’s other novels and essays. The great man (he died in 2010 at age 88) produced a huge oeuvre and all but one of it received wide acclaim. This only exception, ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’, was honored with a harsh condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church and, alas, also from the clique leading the Portuguese government of the time, which religion-infested right-wing didn’t know how to deal with the critical views of the long-time Communist Saramago in other terms than “blasphemy.” The Nobel laureate made clear what he thought of the conservative government’s reaction by moving to Lanzarote, the Spanish island, to spend the last years of his life. In the Portuguese mind, can one fathom a stronger signal of protest than hooking up with something Spanish?

“Words were not given to man in order to conceal his thought.” I am quoting Saramago again and advising all politicians of the world to listen carefully. Saramago also wrote: “One cannot be too careful with words, they change their minds just as people do,” and: “Words that come from the heart are never spoken. They get caught in the throat and can only be read in one’s eyes.” Are you listening, Mr T. and Mrs M.?

Another quote I dedicate to the Trumps and other bigots of our generation: “Men are all the same, they think that because they came out of the belly of a woman they know all there is to know about women.” And the final one, for now, for I am sure that in the near future I will refer to more of José de Sousa Saramago and his writings: “They say that pain heals all wounds. But we never live long enough to test that theory.” How come this again makes me think of Mr T. and Mrs M.?

Ton Haak, May 2017