A lisboan discovery

While visiting one of those boarded up buildings in Chiado (the owner -- an offshore corporation owned by a major Portuguese bank -- want 1.5 million for what is 1,500 square meters in pretty bad shape), I discovered hiding within it -- in the midst of a scene of destruction and desolation -- chained doors, walled up windows and doorways, a dim, half-collapsed staircase lit by a chain of Christmas lights running along the floor -- a hortus conclusus, a walled-in paradise, an island of piece and prosperity: 250 meters of airy, sunlit space at its top, the only apartment occupied in the building, dwelt in by three kings -- an American and two Canadians, all of them illegal. The discovery was delightful: high ceilings and two panel doors, loggias in all directions, views of the bay and the São Carlos, sun rays, breezes; it was like stepping into a vampire novel: this could have been Cathrine Deneuve's hide out in the middle of the city.

And somewhere in that apartment, holding up a short table-leg there was an old book. Wishing to keep it, I stole it. (I didn't think any of the occupants of the apartment would miss it).

Its title page read:

Leite Bastos

As Tragedias de Lisboa

Ediçao Illustrada


Lisboa 1879

I have been reading it-- breathlessly -- ever since.

Now, don't go rushing out to get your own copy.

The book is by one Francisco Leite Bastos, whom research shows to have been a Portuguese journalist and crime-writer, 1846-1881. Leite Bastos is not sufficiently highly regarded to earn a mention in the Portuguese wikipedia. Nor can I say that he deserves it. For all I know, it's just pretty standard Conan Doyle knock off -- cool furniture (colonial gentlemen, purloined letters, rabid dogs); odd puzzles(usually with rather disappointing solutions); a mild thrill of danger. Millions -- quite literally -- like it.

The truth is that the book's main attraction to me lies in the fact that... I do not read Portuguese -- only French and Italian (and neither all too well). I am therefore unable to follow all of the book's inanities. I cannot be disappointed by the solution to its puzzles, for example, since I do not quite grasp the puzzles in the first place.

I understand a little, enough to enjoy the odd furtniture: for example, that O Club Dos Gravatas Lavadas -- the club of the laundered ties -- is a crime organization based on the masonic model; that viscount of Saint Crispin is a ruined Bohemian nobleman who nevertheless manages to keep a balcão in São Carlos, a horse, and a pack of hounds, and to socialize with everybody who is anybody; that in the course of the action a corpse is dug up; and that some of the action takes place among the Africans of the city, an off-limits, forbidden ground. (1)

All of these are excellent building blocks with which to toy; to imagine what the book could possibly be about. But what it is about, I do not know -- and that is just great. Having read dozens of similar books before, I positively know I do not want to know.

Unable to know it, I am free to believe it mysterious; and to fool myself into thinking that there is more to it than there is likely to be.

But I am repeating myself.


(1) I find no mention of the Rua do Poço dos Negros, named after an unholy burial ground for the unbaptised blacks which had once existed here -- "Poço" is the Venetian pozzo, well, here meaning a hole in the ground where the dead were buried).


Andrew W. said...

That was wonderful! Perhaps the greatest joy of the foreign is simply that it allows us to imagine that things are better...somewhere else.

Speaking of somehere else, you live in Lisbon while I live in Toronto's Little Portugal. I am surrounded by the langauge and the people as you are!

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