What day is it? It seems that I have just arrived. But that might be an illusion. The October sun is climbing the sky behind me, uniquely, as if for the first time. But beginnings and endings are now meaningless. Time is no longer a sequence.
I feel as if something were going to happen. Or that it has already happened. Or that it were going to happen again.
Perhaps I have only just arrived. I have this sense of disorientation, as if I were in limbo. What is it I have fled? Some distant world beyond the horizon? What am I seeking? Have I already forgotten?
The universal and the particular are all entangled…singular and plural, simple and complex interchanged. Needs are centuries old—and born this very moment.
I woke up this morning (or was it some other time?) with a need to escape. I wanted to make a pilgrimage, to cross a boundary, to see the world in reverse…to climb a tower, to climb a hill, to transcend the confusing claims of the city, to see it in the morning from a distance.
We said goodbye. You didn’t understand how I could leave you. We drove to the airport, over the great blank surfaces of the highway. In the distance on either side lay miles and miles of houses all alike where the streets are empty at night and secretly violent, breeding conformities and explosions. I was silent.
I mount the low stone wall surrounding the castle and look out over the landscape—foreign, still, cabalistic, remote. Before me lies an orthodoxy of red-tiled roofs and green-shuttered windows. Glass reflects the morning light like dead men’s eyes. An infinite diversity beneath the finite surfaces.
If I could only have explained that I was possessed by impossible visions—of Utopias—architectures in space and spirit resistant to time and change. Platonic forms and harmonies. Summae logicae, uncorrected by the heart.
The city below me is a latitude, without height or depth. Eiffel’s elevator, immobile between unseen levels. The dome of the Basilica of Estrela, sinking like a moon in the distance. The subtle slope of Eduardo VII Park, apostrophizing nature in the midst of the city. The Terreira do Paco, oscillating motionlessly by the river. The Avenida da Liberdade, inflexibly cursive between the Praca dos Restauradores and the Marques do Pombol.
I am sitting alone in the café, trying to write a letter. My table is an island amidst an alien archipelago. The noise encircles its silence and breaks over it like the muffled roar of surf over a rock. I have intruded upon an essentially separate world, a masculine society with its own history, its dogma, its rituals and correspondences. I sense a realm of affiliations and identities to which I can never belong. What should it matter now?
I once wanted to be everyone and everything. And I was nothing. True freedom is that which defines a position.
I am swimming in a haze of cigarette smoke—indefinitive masculine odors. How can I explain what I feel here? One becomes so sterilized, the whole fabric of one’s person bleached like a piece of cloth. My flesh has been so bloodless. Has my heart been beating all these years?
The café resembles an immense cave with its darkened wood walls and vague illumination. Several skylights suggest the sun and shade of the outside world. Crotched iron brackets project torchlike bulbs from the walls. Overhead neon cylinders supplement the dim light.
There is a kind of meretricious opulence about the café. Here are others, more traditional, more elegant. But there is a secret intimation that truth lies, not in the outside world, but here in this Platonic cave. I glimpse its phantasms, its illusions, its tensions, its dramas, its customs. If Plato or Marx came here they would have to destroy the café as the substitute for reality.
This is reality. I have only been dreaming in the outside world.
Is it only a day, or a week, or a month, or a year that I came here for the first time? Perhaps tonight is the first time. I am forgetting these definitions. I must define other things more important. Life and death. Man and woman. Soul and body.
Men stroll up and down. Some sit in groups, talking, gesticulating. Some sit alone, drinking their coffee, brandy or beer; smoking their cigarros negros down to glowing stubs. They throw them to the floor without stamping them out. Some set reading Bola, the sports journal—or one of the local Diarios.
One man with a thin lined face sits alone, not reading nor talking. He wears an expression of what could be called distance-absorbing…a kind of pensive nullification of his surroundings.
I notice a student leaning over his book. He has the sensitive face of a poet—ascetic, inward-looking. Perhaps he is a young Sartre, or a Fernando Pessoa. If Dostoevsky had been a Latin, he would have been one of these people…the Russian Latins who know that in pain there is happiness, in happiness pain.
I know that one dreams of freedom as I dreamed without knowing that freedom cuts us loose and abandons us…to deeper slaveries.
I want to say, you belong to your world. That is your freedom.
I look at the walls. There is a sign that says “Frango assado“—roast chicken. Another that says “Cozinha indiana“—Indian cooking. Men are looking at me. I look down at the blank page in front of me. I intended to write a letter.
I take a drink of coffee and then try to put something into words. I try to imagine that other ambiance where I was once another. How long has it been since I fled? My mind is still imprinted with its geography. But parts are already beginning to disappear. I can only evoke fleeting glimpses of what I left behind. My physical ties are severed and now I wonder if I am still connected in any way? My memory fails to summon entities—only fragments of words, glances, scenes. The past is all mixed up.
Towards the rear of the café several steps lead down into a large dimly-lit room. I see several brick columns spuriously decorated at the top with coiled manueline ropes. At one side is a long curved bar with stools where the waiters deliver and receive the orders. A telephone at the counter rings intermittently. The loudspeaker blurs the air with demands for a Senhor Almeida, Oliveira, Ferreira…”Chama a telefone o Senhor Simoes…”.
In the rear of this room steps lead up to another section—a billiard room with green baize tables where young men play. The crack of ball against wooden ball punctuates the noise of the café.
I pick up my pen. The blankness of the paper is an index to the vacuum in me. What is there to say, to discover new in the past, to try to explain? Where is the past if it does not exist in me? There is a turning point beyond communication.
Are you curious about my life? Do you ever wonder about what I am thinking? What I am doing? Or are you beginning to forget me now that the small daily links between us are broken? Perhaps even curiosity and mystery require a certain continuity…a certain framework. Now we are strangers to each other. But is there anything strange about that? When I look back it all seems inevitable. One takes a step without realizing where the way leads or that it will never lead back.
I wanted to try to tell you before. The problem is that I no longer know how to address you, how to tell you certain things. For a long time we seemed to speak with one another. But did we express all our secret pains and longings? Or did our dialogue increasingly build a wall between us, defining and separating two beings? In being together did we become increasingly apart?
Perhaps I never spoke to anyone but myself. I was really quite different from that person who ate and slept in a broken rhythm of time. Who moved along the streets in the crowds. Whom you saw and thought was I.
The theme of alienation is an old one and possibly quite boring when repeated on the level of ordinary lives. But it was I who had to struggle along, bound to that other when I had to be free…subjectively or objectively.
I know now that it wasn’t freedom I really wanted. But I couldn’t live any longer within the person you thought you knew. That is one reason why I am here, so far away from you. And yet, there was so much more. A life goes on and builds up the most complex needs from the most fundamental lack, life a fugue on an ancient theme.
It should all be so easy, if not to live, at least to tell how life passes.
I am sitting in the café. I don’t belong here. I am an intruder. But then perhaps I am an intruder everywhere. I have so much to learn, so much to unlearn.
At a table near me an elderly couple rest heavily side by side. Are they strangers to one another? Have years of proximity atrophied communication? Have dreams, desires, hopes been exhausted in the daily routine of domesticity? Have they mutually emptied themselves into the common receptacle of marriage?
The woman’s hair fills spaces around her head. She is powdered and perfumed. Her flesh exudes the aura of an overripe fruit in the sun. I think of the moist and fertile soil from which all things grow. Of Gaia, the earth-goddess, of cycles, of the wisdom of maternity…and maturity.
According to the Greeks the mark of perfection is the circular motion of a thing, in which it returns to itself.
The man sits with a brandy in front of him. Gray-haired, heavy-set. Corporeal, tangible, real. Ouranos? I think of paternalism, benevolent authorities.
The empty paper before me is a reproach…as if I have betrayed someone or something…perhaps myself. Man is a continuity. He must constantly weave himself into the fabric of his life.
I must somehow cover the paper in front of me with words, symbols, correspondences, signs…of needs, passions, desires, hopes. Perhaps regrets. But these are untranslatable. What can restore me to the past, present, future?
Students pass by my table, carrying their capas under their arms. Innuendos, insinuations. I feel my presence as flagrant, impertinent. But then what did I know of patterns?
The city is a theatre in which each is an actor and a spectator. It is that glance of the Other that Sartre wished to deny. But it is that that makes man human.
I turn back to my unwritten letter. Can words connect me to the past? I look up and see two boys sitting near me. The one facing me wears glasses that tame his eyes. He sits on the edge of his chair, half-bent over the table. His face is thrust towards his friend. He talks rapidly, smiles, waves his hands. He looks like a young male animal ready to explode into action. His hair struggles against the way he has combed it. His face works rapidly. He is chewing gum.
The other boy is seated in profile. His body is slight, almost like a child’s. At the same time it expresses the wiry strength of a child. There is a mystery about him. As if he holds within himself a number of antitheses—latent and contradictory forces contending for domination and self-transformation. There is the stubbled shadow of a beard on his cheek, black hairs visible on the back of his hands. But his masculinity has not yet completely asserted itself and is subdued by a certain childish softness. His head is round like that one can find in the south of France. He is elegantly dressed. His finders are slender. His nails pink and well-tended.
He turns to look at me. Line, color, dimension is suddenly blurred, suffused with emotion. I yield to innocence. But I withdraw from an over-dramatic, impulsive quality. A suppressed violence. He smiles and turns back to his friend, speaking rapidly. They laugh.
I look down. The past coerces. The present is an impasse. I look up again. The boys have left. The café seems essentially the same. It preserves its balances. Islands of absence have been filled. Islands of presence have been emptied. The waiters move phlegmatically among the tables. I pay for my coffee and leave.
* * * * * * * * * *
It should all be so easy, if not to live, at least to tell how life passes.
This morning I wake up in the pension. The high glass doors to the small balcony are open and the wind blows the white curtains apart. I turn on my side and look out into the blur of morning. I can see the new building across the street. People stir about inside in shadowy pantomime. I wonder if they notice my open window; if they can see me lying there. It is difficult to be a spectator here without being seen.
A mass of starlings swirl below my balcony and tremble in the trees of the tiny triangular park below, spilling over onto the statue of Castelo Branco. A bluster of traffic drowns out their twittering. The fumes from the double-decker buses stopping and starting at the corner fill my room. I arise and close the window. The curtains settle. The noise fades. The world shrinks to the limits of my walls.
This is all I have of a home now, this narrow room with the high ceiling, the heavy wooden wardrobe, the washbasin and bidet, the small bed with the deep dent in the center, the desk—too crowded for writing—where I have piled up some books and magazines. My suitcases rest on top of the wardrobe; my few clothes hang inside. My comb and toothbrush are above the basin. This is a setting for any possibility. I could be anywhere—or anyone. This condition should liberate me, but I feel like a Giacometti statue, defined only by my displacement of empty space.
I wash and dress. Outside in the corridor the maid knocks on a door. “Posso?” I hear the door open. “Bom dia.”
I put my towel, bathing suit and a book in my straw bag; check to see if I have enough money for the day. There is always something I forget, some trivial thing. But there is so much that I would really like to forget…that weighs me down. How can I begin again when man is a continuity that transcends time and space; who must also live in the past and be all his past acts?
I enter the dark hall and lock the door behind me. I pass the closed rooms that collect and guard their secrets from the world. Inside the main door of the pension a candle flickers in the wall shrine. Burnt images of the Virgin, the infant Jesus, Joseph and Saint Anthony waver between the shadows and the flame. In the kitchen the maids are busy fixing breakfast for the other pension guests—pequeno almoco: coffee with milk, hard rolls and butter, wafers with Triunfo stamped upon them, squares of apple marmalade. Amelia hears me opening the door to the outer hall. Her pale lunar face peeks around the corner of the kitchen. “bom dia, Mees. Vai à praia?”
I step into the outer hall and close the door of the pension behind me. I press the elevator button. There is a flash of light deep below me and a spat like an electrical short. The ancient elevator wheezes reluctantly up the shaft and finally stops in front of me. I open its outer and inner doors, enter, close them and press the button to descent. Slowly, the elevator drops between the coil of dark stairs. I turn on the dull jaundiced light. My reflection falls with me down the shaft and I think of illusions and infinite regressions.
Jorge Luis Borges writes that “God has created nighttime, which he arms with dreams, and mirrors, to make clear to man he is a reflection and a mere vanity.” But it is not God who invented mirrors. It is man who dreams of infinity and parity and inverts the universe. I should never see myself at all in order to be real.
The elevator stops at the rês-de-chao, the ground floor. I find it both gratifying and frustrating that there is always something wrong with the machines in this country. The handle of the door is missing. I lift and shake and finally push the door aside
The entrance hall is empty and somnolent in a half-light coming through the door. By the elevator a sign describes the duties of the porteiro. The porteiro‘s baby chatters somewhere in the back hall…a pale baby who plays in the shadows while her mother scrubs the stairs.
I open the door and the life of the street suddenly inundates me. An alien object I sink and rise again to the surface. A line of people wait on the narrow stone sidewalk for a bus. They look at me but no one moves aside. I push past. I realize now that it’s not because they are impolite that they remain rooted to their places. They don’t have that nervous accommodation, that desire to please, that insecurity that comes from equality.
I turn the corner. Morning in the city is ambiguous…the beginning of day; the beginning of work. Light and hope on the horizon. Poverty emerging from the shadows. At this hour only honest people are on the streets…people rushing, people with heavy burdens.
The sun has not yet risen beyond the buildings. The sky above is light but the street below lies in shadow. Men sit at tables on the sidewalk in front of the little café drinking their morning coffee. They watch as I pass with the eternal interest of the Latin male in the female. One of them says something. I become conscious that I am a woman, that I am being given that awareness. But I feel the vulnerability in my exposed face, my face, my arms, my legs. Everything can be taken away from me as suddenly as it is given. I have no center.
I hurry down the long block past the stone wall under the chestnut trees. You know that I move too fast, but how can I slow down now? I move rapidly away from the present without ever belonging to it. I run the race of Aesop’s hare who runs too fast to win.
It is annoying to miss the trolley once I am within sight of it. One misses most what is seen leaving one. I missed you most at that moment of departure. Or perhaps it is the reverse. I will miss you most if I see you again.
This street has no importance…except that it could be a point of departure—the sidewalk paved with thousands of small stones pounded into the group, a shadowy line of trees. But on the other side I see the façade of everywhere and nowhere: a new hotel with a translucent face of windows, a fire station with great red dragon trucks, a Chinese restaurant with the sign of a red dragon over the door, a hairdresser’s on the floor above. The modern city is a disease…an explosion of substitutions.
I would like to show you the azuelejos, the balconies, the grape arbors over the doors, the statues on the roofs before they disappear and you know only the garages, the anonymous windows, the blank buildings.
The knife-sharpener pushes his cart down a blind street. An old woman in a shawl who once sang fados fades into her shadow.
I hurry faster. The world is leaving me. Do I already hear the clang of the streetcar? I pass a woman—smart, withered, angular—her movement crisp and brittle. A tourist perhaps. Yes, an American. I can see her profile. I suddenly remember the opening words of Camus’ L’Ētranger: “Aujourd’hui maman est morte.”
I can’t explain that to you now. It’s the most difficult of all to explain. I am trying to transform my life. I need to turn all such abstractions and symbols back into sensations. One must feel both sterility and fruition. Yes, I feel it deeply now that I am finally beginning to understand what has been lost. “Aujourd’hui maman est morte.”
I am beginning to know the city. In the beginning I sought some perspective from which I could discover its unity. I climbed the hills, looked down from Saint George’s Castle, back from the Tower of Bethlehem. But its true dimensions lay hidden from me. Everything was mystery. I thought that truth came from the outside.
Now I am moving about within and among. I am establishing my own locations and circumlocutions. I don’t know yet everything that I am learning. Perhaps one day I will become blind with familiarity or perhaps none of it will matter anymore.
I reach the corner. A knot of people is waiting for the trolley. At this hour their faces are nondescript, weary, but they look at me curiously. I am embarrassed. I turn away. Yet it is human to look, to confront. Otherwise one rejects and is rejected. One feels one is nothing. There is nothing to give or take.
Here everyone is someone. It is all so very simple, really. I must tell you all this before I forget, before I become blind, before I even become happy.
Inferno II. I wrote that in my journal the first days of our separation. Strindberg as a mad alien in Paris called his journal Inferno. He and Dostoevsky moved about within a strange city to establish their alienation.
I began like that. It was even a kind of relief not only to feel a stranger but to be recognized as one. But I discovered that Inferno lay behind and within me. Now I yearn with all my soul for that mixture of blood and history that would unite me to this world. I yearn for long centuries on this soil. I feel an intense longing, a sensual longing, for a total involvement with one past, with one land, with one people, with one being.
I haven’t yet made it clear that I am a pilgrim in a desperate pilgrimage.
The trolley clangs around the curve at the bottom of the hill and comes to a stop in front of us. I climb up its steep steps and squeeze in with the others, reaching over dark heads to give my escudo to the conductor and receive a pink ticket.
There is a double-decker bus that travels the Avenida da Liberdade to the Caes do Sodrê. I could have caught that. It’s pleasant to walk under the palm trees there in the morning. But I prefer this old wooden trolley with its open windows, its disorderly crowding. I too am becoming a “poet of disorder.” It is only through anachronisms that I can now reach others or seek a deeper order. I want to embrace all these people here…poor people, tired people, old people and young in stiff cheap dark clothes, the smell of garlic on their breath. Somewhere within them they guard the elegance of the Roman, the mystery of the Moor, the vitality of the Jew. I would like to free their latent power to transform the world. I want to possess their warm latin flesh, their blood of male and female.
A short heavy-set man with dark wavy hair and a face marked with the impurities of living tries to press up against me. He looks sideways at me. I push myself back into a corner. Everyone is packed into the back of the trolley. No one moves up front. The conductor says in a tired voice, “Vai ao frente, faça o favor.” People cling stolidly to their places, their faces blank. A woman pushes through the mass in the aisle to exit at the front. “Da-me licença, faça o favor.”
The trolley rattles along its tracks, bell clanging. It crosses the Avenida da Liberdade and ascends Rua Alexandre Herculano, past the sidewalk cafes, the bookshop, the basement antique shops, the dress shop with one suit in the window. It passes the entrances of pensions, the market with the fruits and vegetables in boxes outside, with pineapples and partridges hanging from hooks. It stops again. More people surge onto the street, struggle to enter, hang from the sides of the trolley. They are silent, washed, shaved, on their way to work…office workers wearing ties…empregados de escritorios.
We turn a corner past a furniture store with massive chairs and beds, satin stripes, French bourgeois style. A man runs into the street and tries to leap onto the moving car. I see his hand slide from the hand-grasp at the side of the door. He slips and falls on his back. I hear a thud and cry out. Tears come to my eyes…
I turn and try to see what has become of him. He picks himself up, brushes himself off, retrieves his briefcase. From a distance I can see his half-embarrassed smile. No one on the trolley seems to have paid any attention…either to him or to my cry.
How can I explain? I suddenly feel not only that accident but all those that occur beyond my sight.
The trolley stops at a small praça in front of a church. A few women in black, kerchiefs on their heads, are standing on the steps. We turn into the Rua da Escola Politéchnica and pass the Faculty of Science. It is examination time. The students in the street look serious, mature, somber, possessed by distant purposes. Do they still belong to this world about them, defined by and subjected to it? Or are they lost and free? I know them already…a few.
The street is narrow and winding. There is too much traffic. Impatient taxis, cumbersome trucks. We pass series of small shops…diversified and repetitive. Book stores with technical books for the engineering students. Antique shops with gilt cherubs in the window, misplaced saints, hand-wrought furniture, broken tiles. Buildings of wrought-iron and carved stone that once were palaces. A park.
There is no place without people, people on foot, passing one another. I look at the passengers on the trolley. They look at me. The sun is shining low on the horizon. Occasionally there is an opening between the buildings. The light breaks through and startles the grayness inside the trolley, revealing the film of fatigue on the faces even of the young. We approach a sharp downhill curve. I hold my breath. The trolley stops and then turns slowly. I breathe again.
We pass a park on the edge of a cliff. The city below falls into a cleft and rises again on the opposite hill up to the walls of the castle. In the park old men sleep on the benches, their heads buried loosely in their arms. Pigeons teeter around on the grass. Several workers in gray overalls languidly scrape leaves from the surface of a fountain. A vine of purple bougainvillea leaps over the stone wall of a building like a bright stab of pain.
We approach the Chiado. The street becomes so narrow that I can reach out and touch the walls of the buildings. The conductor clangs the bell. The pedestrians flatten against the walls. We pass narrow alleys and suddenly a praça. Small stores line the street: shoe stores, book stores, cafes, appliance stores…a jumble of signs…Chadinho, Simoes, TV Philco, Papeliria. The trolley stops at the Praça de Camoës. This is the Chiado—the center. Most of the passengers leave. I find a vacant wooden seat at the side. There is a church on one corner…and another on the opposite side. I see the statue of Camoës. Someday I will come to the praça and sit on a bench and try to see the past and present here.
It is almost nine o’clock. People rush to work coming in every direction, from alleys and crevices and doors, and trolleys…indistinguishable from their own shadows. The world at this hour is Dickensian. Behind windows and doors gray figures enter and begin copying figures in ledgers, begin cutting bolts of cloth, begin tasks that are still those of another time.
For awhile I have forgotten you. What I am trying to do is to forget myself.
The trolley starts down the Rua do Alecrím, the Street of Rosemar, past the statue of a homely man in Victorian garb incongruously embracing a half-naked woman. Eça de Queiroz and Truth.
People struggle up the Rua do Alecrím from the Cais do Sodrê. Only the conductors and I and another passenger remain on the trolley. It passes over the bridge above the Rua Boa Vista de São Paulo. The river lies before me, lucid and pulsating in the morning sun. We stop at the Praça Duque de Terceira and I jump down the steps, run in front of the halted cars and pause at the Avenida 24 de Julho. I still have time to catch the train that leaves at 9:11. Cars, trucks, busses speed past. The policeman with a grand flourish stops the flow of traffic. I thrust myself through the tide of people coming from the station, run across the trolley tracks, dart in front of the taxis, climb the steps, push my money into the ticket booth: “Primeira classe a Cascais, ida e volta.” The train is waiting. I hurry into the last car. The doors close behind me.