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Mikey Angelo Rumore: Culture and Disquiet in Lisbon

December 11, 2012

Anti-austerity protests in Portugal highlight a complex culture, at once nativist and transnational.

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Image from Flickr via Biblioteca de Arte-Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

By Mikey Angelo Rumore

I remember the notes of disquiet in a conversation I had with one of the bartenders at Lisbon’s Living Lounge hostel. I had arrived late for dinner, and the only seats left for me and Stephanie Selander, a writer friend from college and fellow attendee of Disquiet International’s 2012 summer program, were in the kitchen. When we sat down, the bartender asked us what we thought of Portugal so far. I said something vague and naïve, like “The culture is so rich here!” I praised Lisbon in utopian, or, perhaps, old-world terms. As I spoke she nodded absently, and soon I realized I hadn’t given her any pause to speak. She smiled and said, “But don’t think Portugal is special. Don’t think we have no problems.” She spoke emphatically, as if my praise were actually a slight.

Trying to shift the conversation, I asked her about how Barack Obama’s image had held up in Europe. “Oh, Obama is all right,” she said dismissively. “America is all right. It’s the Germans. They think they can tell Portugal and the rest of Europe what to do.” This sort of anxiety over Portugal’s place in Europe—the fear of losing national autonomy because of the European debt crisis—was common, but left me and others wondering, “Where is the revolt?” After all, the New York Times called Portugal “a role model in the grinding euro zone crisis,” and popular resentment had not translated into outright resistance.

Portugal has gone from the world’s first modern empire to being, in the minds of many Americans, a province of Spain. The periods in between oscillate between nativism and internationalism. Often, as at Woodstroika, these two impulses exist at once.

In October 2012, after the center-right Portuguese government proposed another round of tax increases and cuts to the public sector, the disquiet finally broke. Organized rallies like “Global Noise,” an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, attracted thousands of demonstrators to Lisbon’s Praça de Espanha to protest the government’s austerity measures. In Lisbon and thirteen other Portuguese cities, these demonstrations elevated native artists, singers, and actors. Their message was that culture could best resist the pressure of the “troika”—a term encompassing the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund. “Culture is resistance, the artists are in the streets” became the motto of what had been billed as “Woodstroika.” A Facebook invitation for the event, which over ten thousand people accepted, read: “Culture is essential for the consciousness of a people, and it is that consciousness which in turn creates and provides content for culture.” Many Portuguese musical acts, such as the rock groups Peste & Sida and Rádio Macau, performed at the Lisbon protest to the nearly full praça. Each city’s protest had its own program, but all were in political solidarity. Cultural budget cuts, these artists said, threatened the preservation and future production of Portuguese art. For instance, the Portuguese government abolished its Ministry of Culture—one of the euro zone’s more radical cuts to government arts support. (By comparison, the euro zone’s leading states—Angela Merkel’s Germany and François Hollande’s France—actually increased their cultural funding slightly.)

The protests argued that the Portuguese must look inward to challenge the outward forces of the troika. Having been in Lisbon the preceding summer, I saw in Woodstroika an embodiment of the nation’s unique history. Portugal has gone from the world’s first modern empire to being, in the minds of many Americans, a province of Spain. The periods in between—from the Great Lisbon Earthquake that became the catalyst for Voltaire’s Candide to the oppressive dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar—oscillate between nativism and internationalism. Often, as at Woodstroika, these two impulses exist at once.

***

The word “disquiet”—desassossego in Portuguese—is intimately linked with Lisbon by way of the city’s most prominent literary export, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The program that brought me and several other writers to Lisbon—Disquiet International—took its name from Pessoa’s book, and it hung over nearly everything we did. The program’s events clustered around the Baixa-Chiado neighborhood where Disquiet is centered. It was here that we workshopped at the Centro Nacional de Cultura (CNC), in sight of the flat where Pessoa was born and near two bronze statues of him—one of Pessoa’s face transfigured into a book and the other perched in front of the Café Brasiliera. Of this area Pessoa wrote, “There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things.”

On July 4, the “Disquieters”—as I called us—toasted to both American independence and Portuguese culture at the Café no Chiado, which belongs to the CNC. Many of us were Americans—some Luso-American—some from elsewhere. We were a “profusion of selves.” It was fitting for a conference named after Pessoa, who wrote in what he called “heteronyms”—semi-autobiographical characters representing pieces of himself. The Book of Disquiet, “written” by the heteronym Bernardo Soares—a Lisbon bookkeeper, like Pessoa—elucidates the contradictory and multiple nature of Portuguese culture by negating any fixed cultural “essence.” Positing that “each of us is several,” Pessoa’s narrator instead grasps for meaning (or perhaps, meaninglessness) in his tedious existence above Lisbon’s Rua dos Douradores, where he works and lives. “To understand,” he writes, “I destroy myself.”

Richard Zenith, the compiler and translator of The Book of Disquiet into English, later explained to us that Pessoa, who spent his formative years in colonial South Africa, “at an early age realized that the ‘unified I’ was fictional.” Jeff Parker, the director of Disquiet, added that Pessoa’s multiplicity “runs precisely counter to American individualism. The American might say, I am who I am. And Pessoa might say, It’s nice to meet all of you.” The Book of Disquiet bears the burden of living both inside and outside of culture.

Camões and his epic persist, not as symbols of a former, crumbled empire, but as a poet and work that culturally inaugurated the Portuguese as a global force. The two opposing poles—destiny and periphery—endure at once in the poet’s conquering glance.

The CNC occupies a similar position: originally a bookstore and hub for free speech amidst the Salazar dictatorship, it exists today as a promoter and protector of Portuguese culture and, in their words, “cultural tourism.” As a visitor, the term both intrigued and disturbed me: What does it mean to be a cultural tourist, and what should a cultural tourist accomplish? By stepping foot in Lisbon, am I helping a broader cultural exchange occur, or just dumping my cultural baggage? It seemed promising and incongruous, like when we walked to the nearby Alfama district to hear fado—a traditional form of Portuguese music that translates as “fate.” Numerous Alfama clubs preserve this beautiful aspect of Portuguese culture, yet its preservation is also flawed. “Some Portuguese people I’ve talked to say that they can’t listen to fado,” a Disquieter told me. “It’s still associated with the dictatorship for many people.” If anything, this facet of fado’s history underscores how problematic a return to “native” culture a la Woodstroika can be.

Pessoa named the fear underlying Woodstroika’s call to replenish Portuguese culture when he wrote, “I’ll die as I’ve lived, amid all the junk on the outskirts, sold by weight among the postscripts of the broken.” Woodstroika extolled cultural production as the way to resist Portugal’s banishment to Europe’s economic edges. But as Pessoa shows, this present condition long predates the euro zone crisis. Throughout Portuguese literature, the anxiety of being forced to define oneself on the periphery of another country’s destiny shows up repeatedly. As a cultural tourist, and even writing now, I have to take into account whether I push the boundaries of the periphery farther away from the center.

An American traveler in Lisbon can test these boundaries by speaking Spanish, as I learned when one of the Disquieters tried her Spanish on a waiter, who angrily replied, “No! We don’t speak Spanish here! Only English… and Portuguese!” The only folks who claimed they didn’t speak English were the cab drivers, and we didn’t believe them.

This mixture of protectionism and openness also manifests itself in the figure of Luís de Camões—arguably Portugal’s most prominent literary figure besides Pessoa. The thought struck me when I observed a towering statue of the Portuguese poet overlooking his namesake Square. At the base of the column supporting the figure, I saw two Portuguese men passed out amongst empty bottles of Super Bock beer. Others sat by, ignoring them. It was hard to tell what condition the men were in, whether they counted among the 15 percent unemployed. In any case, they looked at once old and austere, young and careless.

These men—images of the Portuguese austerity—slept under the poet that proclaimed Portugal’s greatness. Camões wrote his 1572 epic, Os Lusíadas, to claim for Portugal what Virgil had claimed for Rome. “I sing of the famous Portuguese,” Os Lusíadas begins. “Abandon all the ancient Muse revered, / A loftier code of honor has appeared.” Instead of an Odysseus or Achilles, Camões chose Vasco da Gama as his hero, transforming Portugal’s imperial exploration of India into its national epic. At the time, Portugal possessed the world’s premier empire, dominating trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the South China Sea.

However, Os Lusíadas does not represent a tale of triumph, but a plea to the teenaged King Sebastião to reinvigorate the soon-to-be-displanted Portuguese empire. Yet Camões and his epic persist, not as symbols of a former, crumbled empire, but as a poet and work that culturally inaugurated the Portuguese as a global force. The two opposing poles—destiny and periphery—endure at once in the poet’s conquering glance. He looks down on the men sleeping below him.

***

When I first heard about Woodstroika, I immediately recalled Chiado’s Livraria Bertrand—a bookstore with an unrivaled history. I stopped there after noticing titles from J.R.R. Martin, Ken Follett, and Suzanne Collins in translation—and nothing Portuguese—displayed in the window. Outside the nearby Baixa-Chiado metro station, a street musician sang “Born in the U.S.A.” in broken English. “Why can’t it be Pessoa or Camões in the window?” I thought. “Should they be?” After all, local treasures can be cheapened by appropriation by visitors. Yet, it seemed that the translated titles at least encroached on what should be Portuguese cultural terrain. If I’m not to feel like an outsider here, then where?

I felt that the books in the window—the English-language bestsellers—appeared in Portuguese mainly as byproducts of the cultural baggage I carry as an American, as a speaker of English.

The first shelf along the entrance held more translated books—mostly from English. At the end of the first shelves, a Guinness World Records certificate added to my disappointment. “Established in 1732,” it read, “Bertrand bookshop, located in Lisbon, Portugal, is the oldest operating bookshop.”

“That sign should be in Portuguese,” I thought. “I shouldn’t be able to read it.” Then I turned around and found, next to the register, the display of books about and by Pessoa that I had wanted. The bookstore seemed to expand at that moment. I realized it stretched back several rooms. The shelves opposite the literature in translation I had been browsing dedicated themselves to Portuguese originals. The dissonance between the translated titles and the Portuguese became a matter of competing sides, yet, like everywhere else in Lisbon, they both existed in one place.

Litératura inglêsa?” I asked the man at the counter.

“That way,” he said, shifting instinctively to English and pointing a few rooms down. There, I scanned the English language shelves for Portuguese works in translation. Instead, I found the predictable English classics, starting with “A” for Austen. In a way, I felt that these books, in my own language, weren’t for me. Likewise, I felt that the books in the window—the English-language bestsellers—appeared in Portuguese mainly as byproducts of the cultural baggage I carry as an American, as a speaker of English.

When the Woodstroika protesters staked a claim on the capital of their own culture, I cheered them on from afar. But I also thought back on the Livraria Bertrand and knew that wielding a wholly Portuguese aesthetic wasn’t a simple proposition: their culture and mine remain irreparably linked.

Mikey Angelo Rumore is an editorial intern with Guernica. He lives in New York City and comes from Florida, where he recently graduated from the University of Tampa. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Quilt, Glass Mountain, Portland Review Online, and Susquehanna Review. 

Enter for a chance to win a full scholarship to DISQUIET 2013 in Lisbon by going here.

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