Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles: El síndrome de Lisboa (The Lisbon Syndrome)
This novel starts one year after Lisbon has disappeared. Our hero/narrator is Fernando Morales, a Venezuelan teacher, living in Caracas. The day Lisbon disappeared he and his wife Tatiana were in the process of breaking up or, rather, she seemed to be in the process of leaving him.
The rumours spread fast that Lisbon had disappeared. Venezuela at that time in the book and in the real world was a country in total chaos.The Revolution is in charge and they are brutal in controlling any dissent, particularly against the poor people. This will remain a key theme throughout the book. People are living hand-to-mouth and, unless you have US dollars, which most people do not, it is difficult to get anything, including decent food.
The day Lisbon disappeared the authorities shut down the Internet and broadcast vague rumours and sympathy with the Portuguese people but nothing concrete. Despite their, imminent break-up, Fernando and Tatiana clung together, fearing that whatever happened in Portugal could happen in Venezuela.
Not only did the Internet disappear, the sun also did, as a large cloud hung over the Caribbean. People, however, seemed more concerned at the loss of the Internet than the loss of the sun. Eventually, the Internet came back though to gain access, you needed a carnet de patria (a homeland card), showing you were the right sort of person which Tatiana was. However, it only took a couple of days before black marketeers were selling illegal access codes.
It seemed that Lisbon had been hit by an asteroid (though this was left very vague) and, one year later, nothing much seems to have changed for the people of Venezuela though, for Fernando, Tatiana had left to be with her new boyfriend.
Fernando was a high school teacher and one of the key things he had done was set up a local drama group for the local teenagers and it had been very successful. They had put on various plays, such as An Enemy of the People and, more recently and more successfully Richard III.
The children had been very enthusiastic and, whatever else was not working in his life, this clearly was, not least as the children adored him and he worked hard. They had problems – one of the actors, the one playing Richard III was arrested but he was replaced by a woman. The authorities were not too enthusiastic.
We follow Fernando’s story. He does well as a teacher. Tatiana had been one of his students but, though she flirted with him, nothing happened till they met up by chance ten years later. She continued calling him Teach. Her parents did not like him and his mother did not like her.
There is one other key character and that is Moreira. Moreira was born in Portugal. He came from a poor family and was illiterate. he worked for a rich family, together with Lucia. The respective parents pushed them together and they married but it was not a happy marriage, not least because Lucia was not faithful.
The rich man decided he would be better off in Lisbon and moved with Moreira and Lucia, and his wife and daughter, Agustina. However, Lucia decided they would be better off in South America. As Moreira had a brother in Brazil and one in Venezuela, he wrote to both and only Lourenço in Venezuela replied so arrangements were made for the couple to go to Venezuela, Lucia insisting she was sticking with him only for the visa.
All of this sad tale is told by Moreira to Fernando over the course of the book, with Fernando (and the reader) often being left hanging at a key point. Agustina is arrested for her involvement in political activities. Fernando heads off to Venezuela but not with Lucia.
Initially, life is hard for Moreira but his brother eventually does well and so does he. Moreira does learn to read and also helps his wife by getting her Portuguese books to read, which gives us an interesting introduction to Portuguese literature. It is he who decides to set up the drama group, in memory of his wife, who was keen on drama, buying a suitable derelict building, which he calls La Sibila after the novel by Agustina Bessa Luís, one of his wife’s favourites. He also finds Fernando and puts him in charge. The pair remain friends till the end.
This book is called The Lisbon Syndrome. This term is only used once in the book, in a talk by a graduate of Fernando’s course. He defines it as knowing that the things we love are finite, knowing that there is no tomorrow, knowing that we won’t have enough time to do anything worthwhile, that we will disappear without leaving any kind of mark, because we don’t matter to anyone, because our existence has no relevance. This is key to this book as we have been closely following the situation in Venezuela which is deteriorating rapidly as the authorities become more and more repressive, ending up in full-scale confrontation.
While Lisbon and the Lisbon Syndrome are important they do tend to be very much in the background, only occasionally making an appearance. What matters in this book is that the brutal Venezuelan regime appears throughout the book, oppressing the people as much as it can and that the people show the only way to survive is to stick together. It is not always easy. Marriages/relationships break down, families disagree and violence is ever present but, if there is a message from Sánchez Rugeles, it is that, if things go wrong, go terribly wrong, the only hope of survival is by sticking together.
First published in 2020 by the author through Amazon
First English translation in 2022 by Turtle Point Press
Translated by Paul Filev