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Teolinda Gersâo: A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses)
This is only the second novel by Gersâo, one of Portugal’s foremost novelists, to appear in English but then that is one of the themes of this novel – how little Portugal and Lisbon are known to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. Unusually for Gersâo, the novel is narrated by a man, Paulo Vaz, a contemporary Portuguese artist. (His real name is Paulo Ramos but he uses his mother’s maiden name for his artistic work. The reasons for this are explained.) At the start of the book, he has been asked (along with other artists) by the Contemporary Art Museum to present a series of individual exhibitions based on their personal visions of Portugal. Vaz’s will be the first. In particular, they want him to take Lisbon as his theme or, more specifically, my impressions of certain aspects of Lisbon.
Lisbon was probably the least known of all European capital cities, indeed one of the least known capitals anywhere in the world. While that is clearly not true, it is certainly less well-known than other major European capitals. As the intention is to take the exhibition on tour, he suspects that the aim is to put Portugal on the map but Ironic, really, in a country where culture has always been so chronically undervalued.
He writes two letters, neither of which he sends. The first rejects the idea outright. The second explains in some detail why he will accept, namely because he has already worked on this project with a woman called Cecilia Branco, his now ex-lover. He tells Sara, his current lover, that he cannot really do it without Cecilia but, at the same time, they seem to have well and truly broken off relations. Again all is explained later.
Paulo and Cecilia had met when she was one of his students and had had a passionate (his word) affair with good sex, though, as he is quick to state, that was not the only reason. Indeed, he goes on to say that art is a form of making love. However, he also states Love doesn’t last. One day we wake up and the charm has gone. As important as the sex, the couple discovered Lisbon together and tried to make it into a work of art. In fact, for them it became the City of Ulysses, not least because the word Lisbon allegedly came from Ulysses, as Latin authors called the city Ulyssippo and Olisippo. There is little real evidence that this is the case; moreover, Ulysses, if he existed, which he almost certainly did not, would not have come to Lisbon. Nevertheless, the connection is made not only with the Greek hero but also with Joyce’s novel. Connections between Ulysses and Lisbon are given, such as place names and even a small part of Lisbon called Troia.
It would appear that this novel is clearly intended for non-Portuguese as Vaz/Gersâo go into some detail in giving us a potted history of Portugal, its history, politics and culture. We also learn a lot about the Portuguese: their failure to organise, their religious tolerance, their hopeless political management, their squandering of resources, their racism (indigenous peoples were often seen as akin to animals) and the oligarchies who have ruled them. We also get a detailed description of Lisbon and its less well-known features. It becomes very clear that Vaz’s relationship with Cecilia is not just closely linked to art, it is closely linked to Lisbon. When the relationship ends, he states you were never coming back. And Lisbon disappeared with you.
We follow his story, in particular his disagreements with his father (a military officer) and his relationship with his mother who took up painting later in life and taught him. We also follow his four-year relationship with Cecilia and its ending. After the break-up, he travels the world before returning to Lisbon and, inevitably, meets Cecilia again. But now he has to decide – whose view of Lisbon does he give – Cecilia’s, his, or theirs combined? And, if the latter, can he do it without her participation? But we are back to Lisbon the unknown. Because Lisbon wasn’t put under the spotlight or paid any attention by the rest of the world, people’s image of the place was slightly out of focus. I’d therefore offer an oblique vision, somewhat squinted, and false, forcing viewers to look again, a second and a third time.
This story is, of course, a love story but one that cleverly intertwines with that love affair the idea of art and what it is, and the idea of a city, a city unknown to all too many people and a city, that like most cities, has parts which are unknown to many of its inhabitants. Unlike most cities this is the City of Ulysses, not, as he stresses, Joyce’s Ulysses but Homer’s.
This is certainly something of a different approach for Gersâo, not least because it is narrated by a man. It is a book that seems to be aimed at non-Portuguese but that does not seem to have worked as this is only the second language it has been translated into (it appeared in Italian in 2013). However, those who do not speak Portuguese or Italian can now not only enjoy a first-class novel but learn a lot more about Portugal and Lisbon.
First published 2010 by Porto Editora
First English publication by Dalkey Archive Press in 2017
Translated by Jethro Soutar and Annie McDermott