I've just taken delivery of the DVD of Mariza's Concerto em Lisboa, which gives me an excuse to blog about my love for Lisbon and Portuguese culture. For those who don't know, Mariza (born in Mozambique but raised in Portugal) is perhaps the leading contemporary exponent of fado, the Portuguese folk music genre characterised by mournful tunes and nostalgic lyrics. I've owned a couple of Mariza's albums for a while, but I've admired rather than felt passionately about her music: until now. I'd always heard that she was better 'live' and, though a video is not quite the same thing, you do get a sense of the power of her voice and the charm of her personality that isn't quite captured on disc. The open-air concert in Belem, with Mariza and her fado musicians supported by the swirling strings of the Sinfonietta de Lisboa, and the twinkling lights of the hills of Lisbon in the background, is spellbinding.
It brought back warm memories of our visit to Lisbon around this time last year. It's a city I'd wanted to visit since I read Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I still rate as one of the best novels I've ever read. Thanks to Saramago I found my way to the work of Fernando Pessoa (Ricardo Reis was one of his many 'heteronyms' ), perhaps the greatest Portuguese literary figure of the last century. Pessoa's Book of Disquiet ranks alongside Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past as one of the seminal works of modern fiction and, like them, one that completely re-invents the genre. Last year its English translator Robert Zenith brought out a collection of Pessoa's poetry which was a fresh revelation to non-Portuguese speakers. Also worth a mention in this context are the novels of Antonio Tabuchi, an Italian writer who has lived in Portugal for many years and writes in both Italian and Portuguese: like Saramago's book, Tabuchi's Requiem: a Hallucination imagines a ghostly Pessoa haunting the streets of Lisbon, while his detective novel Pereira Declares conjures up the claustrophobia of the city under the Salazar dictatorship.
Mention of Salazar is a reminder that Portugal suffered under a semi-fascist system for much of the twentieth century and only acquired a democratic constitution in 1976. All the more remarkable that this relatively small nation, hanging on by its fingernails to the edge of Europe and isolated from its neighbours for so many decades, should have such a rich and dynamic cultural life. To return to where I started: besides the fado revival, Lisbon has also become a vibrant musical centre where influences from Cape Verde (exemplified by the songs of Cesaria Evora and Sara Tavares) and Brazil meet and cross-pollinate with local traditions.
Lisbon didn't disappoint. Though it doesn't have the obvious attractions of some other southern European cities - no outstanding galleries or modern architectural gems, for example - it has a faded beauty which is completely captivating. It's a city that seems designed for lingering, as the locals seem to endlessly, over a coffee and a book or newspaper, whether in Pessoa's favourite Martinho da Arcada cafe or under the trees in the peaceful Largo do Carmo.
On our recent trip to New York we fell in love with the metropolis all over again and imagined what it would be like to live there...but, for all our fascination with America, visiting cities such as Lisbon reminds us that we are still, at heart, Europeans.
Obrigado, Lisboa. Ate logo.