Richard Zenith, American

on Nov 1, 2010 in Through Other Eyes | No Comments

It would almost be heresy to talk about Lisbon without mentioning the famous poet of the geração d’Orpheu. We set off to discover the city in the company of Richard Zenith, one of the world’s greatest specialists on Fernando Pessoa and a researcher who chose to take up residence in the capital over 20 years ago.

In contrast to what may be fairly assumed, Richard Zenith didn’t come to Portugal on the trail of the poet who wrote Mensagem, but on a scholarship to translate the Galician-Portuguese medieval literature of Cantigas de Amor e de Amigo into English. The idea was to stay six months, but he liked it so much that he extended his stay – until today. “I thought Lisbon was charming.” He settled down in the capital and, since last year, he has had Portuguese nationality. When he arrived in 1987, he encountered a rather more sombre city. “The supermarket shelves only had one brand of cereal; Nacional. Instead of real coffee, people drank a mix of instant with coffee, not so much for their health but more to economise. People wore coats indoors, because central heating was rare.” After twenty-odd years: “Everything is brighter. Portugal has changed drastically. Some people complain about losing certain things. I remember Café Colombo, opposite Pastelaria Versailles, being turned into a MacDonald’s. It’s a shame, but I’m not the nostalgic type; generally change is for the better. Car parks have gone underground and most squares are unimpeded and free of cars now. The metro is excellent, and quality of life is quite different now.”

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However, there are things that have not changed that much. Rua dos Douradores, where Bernardo Soares (fictional author of Livro do Desassossego by Pessoa) lived and worked, “is perhaps the street in the city centre that has changed the least”, says the writer, translator, researcher and critic who has translated much of Fernando Pessoa’s work, such as the Book of Disquiet.

Despite 80 years having passed, “it’s still a narrow street that retains characteristics of that time, like the Casa de Comidas Pessoa, a restaurant that, although not belonging to the family of the poet, was where he used to eat. He talks about this in a diary”. In the preface written by Fernando Pessoa in Bernardo Soares’ book, he recounts the following: “Lisbon has a certain number of eating establishments in which, on top of a respectable-looking tavern, there’s a regular dining room with the solid and homey air of a restaurant of a small trainless town”. Richard says that, although the name of the restaurant isn’t mentioned, it might well have been that one Pessoa had in mind. With regard to this street, our host remembers a funny story.

“A few years ago, an interviewer from BBC radio was here to do a programme about Pessoa and I spent time with him, mapping out a possible itinerary of the poet. We were in rua dos Douradores and we heard a banging. It was a carpenter. And Livro do Desassossego talks about a coffin maker hammering away?” Actually, there are other coincidences between the life of the poet and this translator. Richard plays such things down. “My first address was in rua Pascoal de Melo (where Pessoa also lived), but because Pessoa lived in so many different streets in Lisbon, it’s not hard to find such a coincidence.” The North American’s current address is rua Francisco Sanches, in Arroios, a street named after a historical figure whose work impressed the poet.

“The philosopher, who lends his name to the street where I live, was very important to Fernando Pessoa”, having been quoted in Livro do Desassossego more than once. If Socrates said “I only know I know nothing”, Sanches, in Quod nihill scitur (Why Nothing Can Be Known), said “I don’t even know if I know nothing”. Richard underlines that “this work systematically uses doubt to prove that one can never know anything for certain. Pessoa thought he was brilliant and quotes him more than once in his work. I also believe he thought of translating Sanches. It’s curious how this Portuguese philosopher of the 16th and 17th century is being reassessed by some as a precursor to Leibnitz and Francis Bacon”.

However, it’s well known that the poet was a man not of his time. For Richard Zenith, when he reads Pessoa “you get the idea that we could have written like him. He talks of the soul, and when we read him it’s like he’s talking about my soul. His readers identify and react in the same way.”

In the city with Pessoa

Let’s set off with book in hand in search of Pessoan Lisbon. “It’s impossible to ignore Largo de São Carlos, where he was born and the cafés where he used to write, like Brasileira and Martinho da Arcada. Like he said in Livro do Desassossego: “But I love the Tagus because of the big city along its shore. I delight in the sky because I see it from a fourth floor on a downtown street.

Nothing nature or the country can give me compares with the jagged majesty of the tranquil, moonlight city as seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. There are no flowers for me like the variegated colouring of Lisbon on a sunny day.”

In this profusion of shade and colour, Richard says that “the best thing in the city is to lose yourself”, especially in certain neighbourhoods, like Alfama or Mouraria, Bairro Alto, Bica or Madragoa. He highlights Graça, where he lived for eight years.

“It’s a special place. A kind of village on a hill, in the middle of Lisbon. You can still sense the working-class neighbourhood it once was, with those fascinating vilas: Vila Berta, Bairro Estrela d’Ouro and Vila Sousa. There the Nossa Senhora do Monte viewpoint (my favourite) and the other one, next to Igreja da Graça.” Whenever he has friends visiting, they always go to Tasca do Jaime, where you can hear fado on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Streetwise and impromptu.

Because he describes himself as a night owl, he likes places “where there are people of all ages and various tribes”. When it comes to music, he’s a fan of Musicbox. “Alex & Co are doing a great job”. On a different level, he thinks that the “open-air summer concerts in Largo de São Carlos” are wonderful.

In terms of places worth going, an essential trip is the boat crossing to Cacilhas and a long stroll along the Gingal wharf, “whose silent decadence provides a great place for reflection. The wharf offers a different perspective on Lisbon and at the end of the trail, there’s Ponto Final and Atira-te ao Rio where you can sit outside and have something to eat and drink”.

As one of the city’s adopted sons, “Lisbon is a difficult place to beat.” After having lived in Florianópolis, Paris and Bogotá, he settled down in the city of the seven hills.

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by Maria João Veloso

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