Lisbon Tales, ed. Helen Constantine

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Translated by Amanda Hopkinson

Review by Karen Langley

lisbon tales helen constantine

If you’re an armchair traveller like I am, the “City Tales” collection of books from Oxford University Press will be a real treat and perfect reading for you. To date there have been eleven titles collecting together stories from places like Moscow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna and Rome to name but a few. There have also been three drawing on works featuring Paris and one book of French Tales, so obviously that country is a rich source of literature. Two more volumes have recently been issued and this particular one presents a varied and fascinating selection of pieces which feature a city often shrouded in a certain mystique – Lisbon. 

The capital of Portugal is one of the oldest cities in the world, pre-dating other European metropolises such as London, Paris and Rome by centuries. Like many other cities in the southern parts of Europe, it has a complex history of occupation by a variety of tribes and races from which it draws a rich heritage. Interestingly, as translator Amanda Hopkinson explains in her introduction, Portugal has no great tradition of the short story as a literary form. Therefore, many of the early pieces are extracts from novels; whereas later pieces draw from blog entries.

“My principal aversion to the Church was as a result of its doctrines. Cruelties, hypocrisies, corruptions – the effect of all this being the fundamental rubric of a lie, with false theories and doctrines.” (A Clerical Afternoon)

Lisbon’s most famous literary figure is of course Fernando Pessoa, and his presence informs some of the pieces featured in this collection. There is a newly translated segment entitled “A Clerical Afternoon” by the author, as well as a homage by Mauro Pinheiro. The other thread running through many of the entries is the effect of the repressive Salazar dictatorship, which ran from 1932 to 1968. Hopkinson comments on the number of authors who suffered persecution and exile during that time; and one of the strongest works in the book is “Lost Refuge” by Soerio Pereira Gomes, a powerful and tense story which tells of a dissident on the run, desperate to find somewhere to hide with his cargo of revolutionary leaflets. Other stories comment more obliquely on the political situation; for example the heartbreaking “The Accident” by Jose Rodrigues Miguels which sets a human tragedy against the complex relationship of rich and poor in the city, bearing witness to the suffering of the working class while constructing beautiful dwellings for the rich and powerful. Then there are apparently light-hearted tales, like “The Whistler” which catches one of those moments when a group of humans gathered somewhere (in this case a tram) come together in a moment of understanding, which soon passes. However, as the introduction reminds us, whistling the wrong tune during the time of dictatorship could lead to horrifying results, so perhaps it’s not such a simple story…

One of the joys of the City Tales collections is the fact that they bring so many new authors into English for the first time, and most of the names here were new to me. However, one familiar voice was Jose Saramago; the latter went into exile in 1992 after political censorship of one of his novels, and his “Walking in Lisbon” is a piece written after his first return to the city following a gap of many years. Unusually, it eschews his usual style of labyrinthine prose, but it’s nevertheless a very atmospheric piece, and doesn’t ignore the city’s dark past.

“It must be one of man’s stranger obsessions that he cannot see a dark, dark place without wanting to imprison a fellow human being in it.” (Walking in Lisbon)

As for the more modern works, these touch on anthropomorphism, broken homes and of course migration and exile. A particular stand-out is “Collectors” by Mario de Carvalho, a spooky tale of what happens when an obsessive collector buys an unusual map from a very dodgy seller. As well as being a very unsettling story, there is also the subtext of how we should cope in the modern world when our bearings are lost.

Lisbon is obviously an ancient and beautiful city with a fascinating and somewhat troubled past, the latter often informing the stories here. As with the other “Tales” books the intention is to immerse you in the city you’re reading about and bring it alive; each of the series have supporting material to accompany the written word, and the stories are steeped in the atmosphere of the city. Each piece has an illustration at the start, there are potted biographies of the authors, suggestions for further reading and even a map at the back with significant locations; often these are marked with numbers showing which place relates to which tale, although not in this case.“Lisbon Tales” is another excellent instalment in this series of books, and they’d all make the perfect addition to the bookshelves of any armchair travellers you might know!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has travelled the world through books.

Lisbon Tales (Oxford University Press, 2019). ISBN 9780198801078, 222pp, paperback.

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